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Live. Die. Save the Cat.

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****

Rita Vrataski was twenty-six when the meteor slammed into Hamburg. She stood behind the counter of the coffee shop where she worked and watched the news on a television hung near the ceiling. Sometimes customers entered, began to order, followed her line of sight and then forgot about coffee. They stood at the counter, or hunched on the brushed metal stools, or sat cross-legged in an arc on the floor, their necks craned so they could see the screen.

The creatures weren't called "Mimics," then. In those early hours, most doubted they existed at all. BBC news played back tape of witness interviews in the rubble, men and women shattered by fear and grief, then followed these reports with expert rebuttals. Officials in suits and pancake makeup explained that this sort of thing happened during a disaster. Terrified imaginations had turned shrapnel and chaos into aliens. Into monsters.

Attempts to contain the truth of what was happening -- by the EU, by Germany, by the police on the ground -- were immediate and obvious. All networks using the same footage of the impact site, the same confused witness narratives, the same pans across deserted rubble. Within hours, cell phone photos were leaking through. And once the first clear image of ropey alien carapace made it onto social media, shared and saved thousands of times before panicking censors could stamp it out, reporters abandoned the blackout with breathless urgency and played every gristly clip they'd held back in the hours before.

The night manager never turned up. At some point around dinner time, Rita stopped charging for coffee.

*

Rita tried to go jogging at least three times a week, but she wasn't particularly athletic. She had seen only one dead body, her grandfather, who had passed away in the spare room of her parents' house when she was a girl. Her combat experience began and ended with a couple of fist fights in back of her middle school gymnasium.

In those early days of the war, when battles were still won and some cause remained for confidence, the United Defense Force sometimes turned people away. The recruitment officer to whom Rita was assigned looked at Rita's paperwork with a deep crease in her brow.

"They tell me you've met all the health requirements," she said. "But I'll admit, I'm a little confused as to why you're here, Ms. Vrataski."

"I have experience working in commercial kitchens," said Rita. "Soldiers need to eat."

"It's true that support staff play an important role, but every one of them must nevertheless complete basic training. It's a rigorous undertaking."

"I understand."

"I don't mean to sound ungrateful that you've come today, but it's better for us if we're completely confident in your commitment. The Mimics are unlike what previous generations of soldiers have had to face. We've been forced to discharge quite a few recruits-"

"I understand your concerns, ma'am," said Rita. "You needn't worry about me."

A hinge creaked as the officer leaned back in her chair. "Oh?"

"I'd like to make a difference, ma'am. Even a quite small one."

She picked up Rita's paperwork again, her eyes moving as she skimmed the details. She reached for a stamp beside her blotter. "Well. I suppose I can hardly deny you the opportunity to try," she said.

Rita's civilian life ended with a mechanical ker-chunk.

She'd moved out of her flat days ago, and sold or given away most of what she owned. What remained -- some clothes, a few photographs, an aeropress coffee maker and a ziplock bag of good quality beans -- fit inside a backpack, which she slung over both shoulders as she walked back out into the waiting room.

A man about her age was sitting on one of the plastic chairs, his elbows on his thighs and his fingers twisting together. He looked up as the door closed behind her.

"Hey," he said. He sounded like he was from the North. "Here to sign up?"

"Just did."

"Oh, hey, that's excellent. Maybe we'll ship out together, eh?"

"Maybe."

He sat up straight and stuck out a hand. "Hendricks," he said.

She took it. "Vrataski."

*

The Mimics had taken most of Germany. After nearly three years of trudging progress -- their occupation crawling from Hamburg to Bremen to Hanover, pushing up into Denmark one kommune at a time -- the aliens had made a swift and sudden shift into deadly efficacy. Now the UDF, unbalanced and unnerved, had decided to take a stand against the oncoming tide. Humanity would give no further ground. And Verdun, close to the border and free of any meaningful industry or infrastructure, was chosen as an ideal site for this swift, modern battle of the Western Front.

A small garrison had been stationed at the Citadel before the war. Once they'd cleared out to make room for UDF soldiers, Rita had inherited a small kitchen meant to feed a hundred people, a cramped mess hall, and a hodgepodge of pots and pans and condiments that the army cooks hadn't bothered to take with them.

Rita's brigade was housed in the tunnels beneath the Citadel, four thousand bodies crammed into vaulted brick rooms and corridors meant for only three. The French Armed Forces had cleared out the museum exhibits -- the rickety bunks, the antique radio room, the funeral for the unknown soldier. The trams that had once taken visitors past these dioramas were too slow and underpowered to be practically useful, and had been stacked in the yard outside, halfheartedly protected by a tarp.

Rita was peeling potatoes when Hendricks came sidling into the kitchen, a cigarette tucked over one ear and a conspiratorial grin on his face.

"Awfully unusual for you to be given the afternoon off," she said.

Hendricks chuckled. "Yeah, well. Got that big push across the border tomorrow. Good time to take a break, catch up with friends, eh?"

"How long until your squadron leader notices you've slipped away from PT?"

"Oh, I'd wager he spotted it right off." Hendricks took the cigarette between his fingers and held it up. "But seeing as I split the rest of these between my squad, I suspect they'll say I'd some pressing business elsewhere."

Rita snorted. "If you're going to implicate me, make yourself useful and stir the gravy."

The cigarette now dangling from between his lips, Hendricks went over to the stove and plucked up the wooden spoon she'd left sitting the counter. "We found another mannequin closet," he said. "They were all piled up in layers. Bit creepy, really."

"What'd you do with them?"

He jerked a thumb toward the windows. "See for yourself."

Rita wiped her hands on her apron and went to look. A dozen or so rigid bodies were piled on the grass near the citadel wall, the sight somewhere in the uncanny valley between fashion dolls and corpses. Their costumes had been stripped off, and the bare pink plastic shone in the sun.

Gooseflesh rose on her arms. "Much less creepy," she said.

"Another black mark in the scenery column, but some lucky officer will have a private bunk." Rita heard the scritch-fizzle of a struck match. Hendricks drew an exhaled a deep breath.

She pulled the strings of her apron tight and turned back around. "You shouldn't smoke in-"

The wall behind Hendricks exploded.

A shelf of glass jars, a rack of cast iron skillets, a stainless steel counter, all of it flying toward her, burying her, slicing into the skin of her arms as she brought them up in front of her face.

She was on the floor, her shoulder against a crumpled metal cabinet, the air thick with noise and dust. Had the match set off a gas leak? Why wasn't there any fire?

She stood on shaking legs and looked at what had been a room a few seconds before.

Too much was happening at once for her mind to track. She couldn't see Hendricks. She couldn't see anything that looked sane or familiar, only a slapdash collage of objects and color disconnected from her memory of this space.

She didn't see the Mimic until it appeared directly in front of her face, too impossibly sudden to be frightening. The hot wind of its roar made her blink and burned her skin.

Her hand found a skillet in the wreckage behind her. She swung it around as hard as she could into the side of the Mimic's head. It connected with a metallic klang that vibrated up the length of her arm.

Another crash of stone and plaster. Clouds of dust. The Mimic shook and snarled with fury. Something dark and shining moved at the edge of Rita's vision, a javelin arcing toward her, too fast to react, the skillet heavy and useless.

The Mimic backed away. Was pulled away. Was in the air, thrown against the ceiling, against a wall, screaming and writhing in the mechanical grip of a bulky yellow civilian Jacket. Of a woman, jaw clenched and teeth bared, growling as she pummeled the Mimic's face with her Jacket's clamp-shaped grips.

Rita remembered that she had a gun. She groped for it and stumbled across the kitchen, tripping over debris as her shaking hands tugged at the holster.

She brought it up in front of her. The Mimic screamed, the woman screamed, and Rita couldn't hear the click of the first bullet entering the chamber.

Rita held the gun to the Mimic's black eye and fired until her magazine was empty.

*

They found Hendricks under the overturned stove. The weight of it had crushed his ribs, but the fragment of stone wall lodged in the back of his skull had killed him.

"It must have been instant," said the woman in the Jacket. She had used its grips to shift rubble out of the way, but Rita had lifted his head, checked for a pulse, found a pool of his blood on the ground instead.

"We need to warn the rest of the base," said Rita. She still knelt on the floor, and shards of rock and iron cut into her knees. On the third try, she pushed another magazine into place. Her hands were shaking.

"They know," said the woman. She sounded American. Actuators whirred as she gestured to the Mimic's corpse. "This was the last of the group from the tunnels."

"Group?"

"Mimics swarmed the guard house before they could close the gate," said the woman. "Moved through the entire compound in minutes." Even at rest her features were severe, sharp cheekbones and square jaw framed by tight black curls. Her pale skin darkened to blue under her eyes. "It was pretty bad."

Rita got up, holstered her gun, and wiped her hands on her apron. She left red streaks along her thighs. "How many people are dead?"

"I was in the hangar. A couple of squadrons were out on PT. Other than that, we aren't sure. I..." She paused. Civilian Jackets didn't have helmets, but Rita could hear the tinny sound of someone's voice coming from somewhere near the woman's collar. She frowned, listening. Then, "I need to go and help look for survivors. Will you be all right here?"

Rita looked at the room-shaped confusion around her.

"Good luck," said the woman.

She pushed through what remained of a doorway and out of Rita's sight.

*

Rita's battalion stood assembled in what had been the parking lot of the Citadel museum, the original compliment of a thousand soldiers reduced by half, at least. Lieutenant Colonel Pelt, a woman in her fifties with a bun like steel wool, regarded them with frowning exhaustion.

"Our itinerary for the next twenty-four hours has changed," she said. "At this moment, you should be receiving a much-needed primer on the nature of our enemy. Instead, many of you were taught those lessons on less favorable terms. Tomorrow, the first battalion was to be sent to the front in order to deflect further incursions into human territory. That battalion no longer exists in a meaningful sense.

"Those of you who were left with incomplete squads have been reassigned. Those of you who were previously charged with non-combat duties have been reassigned. You will attend a Jacket demonstration and you will be briefed on the alien threat. You will then have twelve hours before we load up the drop ships. In that time, you will familiarize yourself with your equipment and with your squad." Pelt stopped her slow pace along the line, hands clasped behind her back. "Do you understand?"

The chorus of "Yes, sir!" was meager and out of sync. One of the men beside Rita in line -- a Private she had only ever seen at meals -- mumbled a stuttering protest.

Pelt's head snapped around. "What was that, Private?"

"W-we aren't trained for this," he said, louder now but wavering.

Pelt's expression softened into a sort of grim sadness. "No you were not," she said. "Nor were any of us." She raised her voice, once again addressing the crowd. "It is now my great honor and privilege to introduce Ms. Ripley. Those of you familiar with her history will understand how fortunate we are to have her in our presence today. I expect you all to give her your full attention."

Pelt stepped aside. The private who'd spoken up now shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "This is crazy," he muttered. "This is fucking crazy. They're gonna slaughter us tomorrow."

A woman beside him ducked her head. "Come on, Whittle..."

"We're fucked. I mean, I've never even worn a Jacket." He turned to Rita, and she drew a startled breath. "Vrataski, back me up here."

Rita swallowed. "What do you want me to say?"

"You're the cook. You know what I'm talking about."

"There's a battle tomorrow," said Rita. "We're the only ones left to fight it. I don't see that there's much else to discus."

Someone behind her hissed, and she snapped her mouth shut as a woman in a mechanic's plain gray jumpsuit strode to the front of the assembly. Even without a Jacket, Rita recognized her immediately. The woman from before. From the kitchen.

The woman -- Ripley -- spoke more quietly than Pelt. But beneath her voice was an intensity that made Rita's stomach clench. "I'm a civilian, not a soldier," she said. "When the UDF first asked me to talk to a roomful of men and women like you about the Mimics, it was because I'd spent more time with them than anyone else alive. Now, it's because I'm good at explaining them to people who've never fought one.

"The Mimics aren't soldiers. They aren't even animals. They don't eat. They don't sleep. They don't breed. They don't care about their individual survival." Ripley paused. The assembly stood rapt and silent. "They're machines. Tools. They've been sent to kill us so someone else can move in. Killing us as quickly and efficiently as possible is the start and end of why they're here.

"A Mimic will never retreat. A Mimic will never hesitate. It's impossible for a human being to be as relentless as one of them," she said, cold and certain. "Our only chance is to be smarter."

*

They were dismissed for dinner, a quick shoving of protein bars into their mouths while they waited in snaking lines at the armory. Rita was too nauseous to eat. She thought about Hendricks' blood on the floor. She thought about the feel of her gun recoiling.

A tech lead her through rows of hanging Jackets, some of them already loaded with soldiers, all gray confusing tangles of wire and steel. They looked half-finished because they were, the normal process of development truncated by urgency. She'd heard the rumors in the mess hall.

"Mostly these pilot themselves," said the tech. She sounded tired. "Just turn so you're facing away from it, then step up and back with your right foot....great, now your left." Rita followed her instructions. The Jacket dipped a little under her weight and loose fastenings jingled.

The Jacket closed around Rita's chest. It locked with a click she could feel in her sternum. Her heart pounded against it from the inside.

The tech pulled on a couple of fastenings. "How's that feel?" she asked. "Good fit?"

"It's fine," said Rita.

She felt like she was drowning.

*

Officers didn't explain battlefield strategy to enlisted women; Rita had no idea why they were going to load into drop ships instead of waiting for the Mimics at the Citadel. She was told they would set down on farmland, a copse of trees on one side and a narrow river on the other. She was told the Mimics were likely hiding underground. She guessed that much -- most? -- of her squad would be killed as soon as they landed, skewered from below by monsters in the soil.

There were no real training facilities at the Citadel. Soldiers intended for Jacket duty had learned to operate them in Basic. This camp near the front, hasty to begin with and now partly in ruins, left the battalion of second-choicers with little scope for practicing combat. Not that they had anything like enough time.

Rita jogged laps of the Citadel's perimeter, her Jacket whirring and rattling around her. She climbed over half-collapsed stone walls. She switched her safety on and off and on again. She loaded, armed, and disarmed grenades. She clanked over to the range and fired at stationary targets while standing, while running, while jumping for imaginary cover. Her aim improved by some slight margin. The Jacket had begun to feel less like a cage, but the bulk of it made her clumsy and awkward. Her body ached from where it pressed into her back, her arms, her shins. She thought of how smoothly Ripley had moved, how precise each step and strike had been, even in a bulky Jacket that was built for lifting crates.

Once, she caught Ripley watching her. The older woman stood beside one of the temporary hangars, arms crossed over her chest. Rita ducked her head and pretended not to notice.

She felt like a child playing at war.

She practiced this way -- sometimes alone, sometimes with other soldiers on this same impossible road -- until the Jacket's battery ran out. The techs wouldn't give her another, pointing at the clock by way of explanation. Nearly two in the morning. They mustered at six.

The tunnels were closed to them, now, too badly damaged to be habitable. They'd pitched tents in the yard, damp and close in the summer evening.

Rita lay on her bunk, eyes open in the dark. In her mind, she navigated the menus of the Jacket's interface. Turn the safety off. Eject an empty magazine. Fire a grenade.

She slept very little. She dreamed of being swallowed by the earth.

*

The inside of the drop ship was dark and hot and loud.

The sky beneath was too bright and the ground too far away, blurred by motion and nausea and nerves. It rushed toward her as wire unspooled from the harness above, steady until the final click and plummet as her tether ran out and her Jacket disconnected. She fell the last four feet and landed on her hands and knees. They hadn't been able to practice this part. When she stood, root-ragged chunks of turf were caught in the joints beside her legs.

Safety off. A man screamed and fell beside her. Blood on the grass. Rows of wheat rustling, gunfire and yells, more screaming. A grenade sent a wave of dirt across her field of vision.

A coil of gray carapace snaked between the wheat. She fired, dodged a strike, fired again until it fell, jumped over it and forward, dirt on her visor and no way to wipe it clear. Another explosion, this time behind her, threw her face-first into the ground.

She pushed herself up again, disoriented. Voices screamed over the radio, in the fields, in craters blown in the dirt. She spotted a tree, old and solitary, its trunk wide enough for her to duck behind. She ran toward it, stumbling over Jackets and bodies, firing on Mimics that roared into her path and barreling right past, waiting for one of them to stab her through the back. The Jackets barely counted as armor. Hers felt huge and useless.

She was yards from the tree when the ground boiled up from under her. She fell back, landing hard. A Mimic poured up out of the dirt and screamed in her face with a mouth of blue fire. So close it felt twice as large as the others, too close for her to scramble away or to kill it before it ripped her apart.

She fired a grenade down its throat.

A flash of black liquid splashed against her visor, melted though it, dripped on her skin with a burning impossible pain so intense that it drowned out the world. She screamed and screamed and screamed and-

***

A dozen or so rigid bodies were piled on the grass near the citadel wall, the sight somewhere in the uncanny valley between fashion dolls and corpses. Their costumes had been stripped off, and the bare pink plastic shone in the sun.

Rita brought her hands up to her face. She prodded her unbroken skin. Her pulse climbed. Behind her, Hendricks lit his cigarette and took a long, savoring drag. She stared at the mannequins, at their hairless skulls and too-smooth faces.

The room shattered behind her. Debris struck her back and the impact jolted her forward. Her face hit the cold glass of the window, the breath knocked out of her as her stomach was thrown into the edge of the counter.

Something plowed into her. The window shattered. Hot blood ran into her eyes.

Pain in her side, inside her, pressure on the wrong side of her spine.

A woman's voice. "You fucking bastard! You fucking-"

***

A dozen or so rigid bodies were piled on the grass near the citadel wall, the sight somewhere in the uncanny valley between fashion dolls and corpses. Their costumes had been stripped off, and the bare pink plastic shone in the sun.

She spun around, gasping for air, a low moan strangling in her too-tight throat. Hendricks stared at her, frozen in the moment before lighting his match.

"Move!" She shouted the word, grinding out the vowels.

Hendricks blinked. "Rita, what the hell-"

"Get away from-"

The wall behind Hendricks exploded.

She fell, got her feet back under her, reached for where she knew the skillet would be, slammed it into the Mimic's head when it appeared, glanced toward the far wall a moment before Ripley's yellow Jacket crashed through it.

She reached for her gun and ran across the kitchen.

She tripped on a fallen pot rack, lost her balance, tumbled directly into the Mimic's-

***

A dozen or so rigid bodies were piled on the grass near the citadel wall, the sight somewhere in the uncanny valley between fashion dolls and corpses. Their costumes had been stripped off, and the bare pink plastic shone in the sun.

She shouted at Hendricks. He didn't move. The wall exploded. She fell, got back up, grabbed the skillet, swung it, connected, watched as Ripley pulled the Mimic away and threw it into the wall.

She reached for her gun, took quick careful steps across the debris, raised it as Ripley pinned the Mimic against a steel counter by its neck.

She fired into its black marble eye until her magazine ran out; paused, reloaded, and fired again.

She asked Ripley to help her move the stove.

"Mimics swarmed the guard house before they could close the gate," Ripley said. "Moved through the entire compound in minutes. It was-"

"Pretty bad." Rita lay her hand on Hendricks' broken chest. "Yes."

Tinny voices over Ripley's radio. "I need go and look for survivors," she said. "Will you be all right here?"

"There aren't any survivors," said Rita. "Everyone that's still missing is dead."

Ripley frowned at her for a long moment. Then she turned, her Jacket's actuators whirring, and walked away.

*

Rita watched the day through a fog of disoriented shock.

She attended the assembly. She ate her protein bars. She waited in line for her Jacket assignment. She listened to the tech explain the software and didn't ask any questions. She left the Jacket in the armory and went back to her bunk.

She didn't sleep.

*

When the feet of her Jacket connected with the ground, Rita stood on the grass and looked around her. She watched for the explosions she knew would come. She found the tree she had tried to reach before. It looked small and far away.

A Mimic plunged toward her. She closed her eyes.

***

The next four times she arrived in the kitchen Rita turned around, braced herself against the rain of pots and broken stone, and waited for the Mimic to kill her.

She had never been religious, but she wondered if this were a sort of Hell; if she'd been sent here because she'd allowed Hendricks to die. Now she would have to watch, or listen, to the sound of his last moments over and over again. She would have to watch him die forever.

***

Maybe not Hell. Maybe purgatory. Maybe a place in between, where she'd been put to serve some purpose beyond her own death.

She reached for the skillet again.

She waited for Ripley to pin the Mimic to the wall.

She fired her gun into its eye.

"Private Hendricks is under the stove," she said, pointing. She loaded another magazine into her gun, her hands steady.

Ripley dropped the Mimic's corpse. The grips of her Jacket rotated with a mechanical whine. "Are you all right?"

"I'm alive," said Rita.

*

She attended the assembly.

She collected her Jacket.

She asked for an extra battery before she left the armory.

She drilled herself until the firing range closed. She ran laps around the compound well into the night, until a Sargent ducked out of his tent and ordered her to stop making so much noise.

She spent the hours until dawn in a trailer near the guard house, hunched over the camp's shared computer and searching for maps of the field where she had died. She studied the dirt roads, the rolling hills, the breaks between each field of grain, the distance from where she would drop to the tree line, to the river, to a farmhouse that stood beside it.

She jumped a little at the sound of the flimsy aluminum door opening, then half-turned in her seat to look over her shoulder.

"It's pretty late," said Ripley. "You should get some sleep."

Rita faced the computer again. "I'll sleep tomorrow."

"I'm not an officer. I can't order you to do anything." Ripley sighed. "You know how serious this is."

"I do."

"You're going to get yourself killed."

"Probably," said Rita.

That was fine.

As long as she learned something.

*

She killed the Mimic in the wheat beside her. Jumped out the way of the explosion before it could knock her to the ground. Ran for the tree. Killed the mimic coiled underground between its roots. Ducked into the paltry cover. Reloaded. Glimpsed movement to one side and just behind her-

***

A dozen or so rigid bodies were piled on the grass near the citadel wall, the sight somewhere in the uncanny valley between fashion dolls and corpses. Their costumes had been stripped off, and the bare pink plastic shone in the sun.

"Fuck," she said.

The kitchen shattered behind her.

***

Part of the problem was that she could never seem to get to useful cover fast enough, and staying in the drop zone meant she'd be killed within minutes. Hiding behind the tree in the field was useless -- she'd died under its branches six times already. Seven? She was starting to lose count.

***

What was she doing, anyway? What was she actually trying to accomplish? She'd accepted that her loops were pointless, with no larger intelligence -- benevolent or otherwise -- behind them. Could she engineer a point of her own?

So far all she'd managed to do was become slightly better at surviving. A couple of loops before this one, she'd managed to stay alive for at least a half an hour, camped out in the branches of her tree and firing grenades down into the fray.

She needed to be organized about this.

Rita sat cross-legged on top of her bunk, a pen light clenched between her teeth, and wrote in the small notebook she'd previously used for planning menus. She drew two columns.

     Things I Can't Change

     When I wake up.
     Whether I'll wake up.

     Things I Can Change

     How much I know.
     How well I can fight.
     How long I survive.
     How many other people die.

She wrote Hendricks' name at the bottom of the page, apart from either list. Then she turned to a fresh page and began to write chronologies of everything that happened after the drop ship's doors opened. She underlined the parts that turned up, again and again. She drew a star next to anything she did that consistently kept her alive, even if only for a few seconds.

Someone groaned in the dark. She heard the muffled impact of a fist connecting with a mattress. "Jesus, Vrataski, go to sleep already."

She ignored him. What was he going to do, kill her?

Another fresh page.

     What Do I Want To Do?

She took the flashlight out of her mouth and held it as she looked down at the notebook. She flipped her pen between her fingers.

     Win.

 

***

"Those of you familiar with her history will understand how fortunate we are to have her in our presence today. I expect you all to give her your full attention."

Pelt stepped aside. The private who'd spoken up now shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "This is crazy," he muttered. "This is fucking crazy. They're...shit, Vrataski, where're you going?"

Rita stepped out of line and strode between the rows of soldiers, not pausing at the whispered questions and curses she passed by. Pelt stood to the side of the parking lot, head bowed as she spoke with an officer Vrataski didn't know.

Rita walked right up to them as if she'd been expected. "Excuse me, Ma'am," she said. "I need to speak with you."

Pelt looked at her as if her hair were on fire. "Private, you have not been dismissed from your assembly."

"I know, Ma'am, but-"

"The existence of this conversation is an insult to Ms. Ripley, who has come a very long way at great personal risk to speak to you today."

"Ma'am, yes, I understand-"

"Unless you have a medical emergency, Private, you will go back to your place in line. You're lucky I have better things to do with my afternoon than discipline your-"

"Ma'am, I have information that could be invaluable on the battlefield tomorrow." Rita held up the notebook. She'd taken to filling it with battle timelines in nearly every loop, refining and hardening her memory of the day and all its iterations. There'd been just enough time to scrawl out the basics before the assembly started. "It's vitally important that you listen to what I have to say."

*

They were too short on bodies to keep her in the camp's stockade for very long. She spent the night there, watching the clouded moon proceeds across the sky. Then they took her out, put her in a Jacket, and escorted her to the drop ship hangar.

The bay doors opened. Feeling surly and frustrated, Rita hit the release switch next to her shoulder as soon as the gap beneath her was wide enough. There were startled shouts to either side of her, then the rush of wind past her ears.

She landed in the river.

It was deeper than it had looked from the air.

***

This time, she waited until they'd been dismissed.

Pelt looked only marginally less irritated. "Private, I am not sure I understand why you've elected to try my patience, but I will warn you that today's events have worn it extremely thin."

Rita squared her shoulders. "Ma'am, all I ask is that you hear me out. I'll be as brief as possible."

Pelt frowned at her.

"Please keep in mind that I realize how ridiculous all of this will sound-"

"Out with it, Private."

She drew in a breath. Calm. Stay calm. "Ma'am, I already know what will happen tomorrow. I know where the enemy will be, where we should drop. I can give us a real chance. I can help us win."

Pelt made a sharp tsk and began to turn away. "We all know what will happen tomorrow, Private. We will meet the enemy on the front, and a great many more of us will die."

Rita moved back into Pelt's line of sight, her composure fraying. "Ma'am, you don't understand. I've seen all of this before. I've done all of this before. Dozens of times."

Pelt stared straight at Rita, then, a deep crease between her brows.

Rita kept going. She didn't see that she had much of a choice. "Look...that truck over there?" She pointed. "In just a moment, the driver will accidentally back it into the fence." The truck's engine started mercifully on cue. It backed into the chain link with a crunch of metal-on-metal. "Now he'll get out and start to walk around the back to check the damage, but on the way he's going to trip over....see? See, there!"

The man tripped and caught himself. Pelt's frown intensified.

"In another few seconds, a flock of birds will fly overhead." They did. She'd spent the last couple of loops memorizing all of this. "Now over there...over there, the hangar doors will open and three soldiers will walk out into the yard. One of them's going to slap the other on the back...see? Yes, and then they'll stop to let a jeep drive past them..."

She carried on like this for several minutes longer. Pelt listened and watched, stoney silent. When Rita paused for more that a few moments, she said, "Are you finished, Private?"

"Yes. Yes, Ma'am, thank you."

"Come with me."

*

This was the loop when Rita discovered what would happen to Verdun.

She sat in the psyche ward of Hôpital Saint Nicolas and looked out the small, barred window at the sky. There weren't any clocks in here. No one would speak with her.

Night passed. Morning came. Missing her notebook, Rita spoke the timeline aloud under her breath.

She heard the first explosion in the late afternoon.

Within a half an hour, she could discern the individual sounds of Mimics tearing people apart on the street.

The bars on her window kept her inside, but they did very little to keep the Mimics out.

***

Once, she managed to convince Pelt. She wasn't exactly sure how she'd done it -- some vagary of her delivery, the precision of so much practice, she wasn't sure. She'd done this at least ten times, now, confident she'd eventually hit on the right approach.

She lasted much longer in that loop, too. At least a full extra day, long enough to be moved to a UDF base in Paris. She wondered if that meant she'd be sent back to a different place if she died. Or a different time.

They tried to keep their voices down, but she could hear the Generals discussing her outside of her cell. The battle of Verdun was over -- what other use could she be put to?

The agreed they would need to examine her brain.

She began to make a rope out of her sheets.

***

It felt like a relief, in a way, to return to the cycle of battle again. She stopped showing up to the assemblies entirely. Pelt didn't submit the order that issued them Jackets until after she'd addressed the battalion, but Rita had discovered that the techs didn't seem to care all that much about paperwork. If she showed up at the armory, explained that she'd been reassigned and asked to be outfitted, most of the staff would go along with it. It helped if she waited for the more suspicious of the lot to take a bathroom break, which they of course did at the exact same time on every trip she took through this fucking shitshow of a day.

Get her Jacket. Waive the orientation. Ask for three extra battery packs, six magazines of ammunition and a dozen grenades; accept their counter-offer of two batteries, four magazines and ten grenades. Leave the armory, still wearing the Jacket.

Train until four in the morning, eating a protein bar once an hour, stopping to use the bathroom every two.

Sleep for one hour. Report back to the armory for her battle allotment. Line up with her squad at the hangar. Ignore all questions about where she's been. Board the drop ship. Take her place.

Hit the release three seconds after the bay doors are fully open. While in the air, fire seven grenades at Mimics hidden under the ground. Land on a dirt path between a wheat field and a hill. Push a soldier out of the way of an incoming javelin. Fire into the wheat for two seconds. Duck. Roll one meter to the right. Fire under an abandoned tractor for three seconds. Climb up onto the tractor. From the higher vantage point, fire two more grenades into the next field over. Jump three meters forward, toward the tree line. Run for six meters. Fire. Jog one meter to the left. Fire. Shove a disoriented soldier behind her. Parry a Mimic's strike with her forearm. Fire a grenade into its midsection. Run.

Fire.

Run.

She always made the tree line, now.

All that changed was how long she survived once she was there.

***

A dozen or so rigid bodies were piled on the grass near the citadel wall, the sight somewhere in the uncanny valley between fashion dolls and corpses. Their costumes had been stripped off, and the bare pink plastic shone in the sun.

Six loops had passed without improvement. She'd reached a dead end. She had taken this path as far as it would go, and exhausted any chance of winning with the plan she'd used so far. Whatever "winning" even meant for someone like her.

She turned in time to see Hendricks light his cigarette.

"I'm sorry," she said.

He smiled at her, bemused.

The wall shattered behind him.

Mimic. Skillet. Ripley. Gun. Stove.

She watched as Ripley looked down at Hendricks' corpse. Really watched, more closely than she had before, looking for glimpses of Ripley's private mourning. Watched as a wave of real grief twisted Ripley's features.

"You aren't a soldier," said Rita.

Ripley looked up at her. "No."

"But you've fought them before. The Mimics."

"Yes."

"When?"

"Whenever I've had to."

"Why are you here?"

Ripley looked away. "To help," she said. "Look, I have to go."

"To search for survivors."

"Yes."

She watched as Ripley pushed through what remained of the doorway and out into the hall.

*

"I'm not really supposed to be outfitting you yet," said the tech -- a Private Raylle, Rita's favorite. "But they told us it's just a matter of putting through the paperwork. Don't blame you for wanting to get a head start."

Rita stepped up into her Jacket. "Do you know Ripley?" she asked. She didn't bother with preamble anymore. The whole idea of etiquette felt ridiculous.

Raylle paused. "Not really? I mean...I service her Jacket sometimes. But yeah, I know about her. Of course."

"I don't," said Rita.

"It's been on TV like...dozens of times..."

"I don't watch the news anymore," said Rita.

"Well...okay, this is just from memory, but..." Raylle punched a few commands into the Jacket dock's console. The Jacket closed around Rita's chest. "She was on a boat when the meteor hit. Like, pretty far out I think. But a bunch of Mimics got on board some how, and she had to fight them off. I think she ended up sinking the ship?" Raylle frowned. "Everyone else on board died. I think the Navy picked her up?" A shrug. "It was a big deal, you can look it up if you want." She tapped a few quick commands into the console. "All right, go ahead and make sure the OS loaded properly."

Rita flipped through menus on her screen, more of a ritual now than a necessity. She'd worn this exact Jacket a hundred times. Hundreds? "But she's a civilian."

"Yeah."

"Why?"

"No idea."

"Is she allowed access to these?" Rita gestured to the row of military Jacket docks.

"Probably not," said Raylle. "But I doubt I'd say 'no' if she asked. We're supposed to treat her like an officer, you know? Pelt's been pretty clear about that."

"Hmm."

She left her Jacket in the armory. A variant day took shape in her mind.

*

The problem with skipping the assembly was that she had no way of knowing where Ripley had gone afterward. She hadn't thought to pay very close attention before. She'd always been preoccupied with Pelt, or how to get a better allotment at the armory, or how many protein bars she should eat at what speed in order to avoid being distracted by indigestion.

As this was obviously going to be an information-gathering loop, rather than one in which she actually accomplished much of anything, she figured she may as well abandon tact and normalcy altogether.

Rita walked to the pay phones outside what had been the Museum's gift shop, dialed the camp's office, and told the clerk who answered that she was Ripley's sister. There was a family emergency. She needed them to page Ripley immediately and have her come to the phone. She steamrolled over all protests about "unusual" circumstances. She somehow managed to get away with not knowing Ripley's first name.

She could see the guard house from where she stood. Once Ripley had strode into view, Rita hung up the phone and set out across the yard.

Ripley was speaking with the guard as Rita strode up to them. "I don't have a sister. There's been some kind of a mistake."

The guard rubbed the back of her neck. "Look, Ma'am, I'm sorry, it sounded credible and I didn't want to-"

"Excuse me," said Rita.

Ripley frowned down at her. Rita was tall for a woman, but Ripley was at least four inches taller.

Rita squared her shoulders. "It's very important that I speak with you," she said.

Ripley's annoyance faded into recognition. "You're the woman from the kitchen."

"Yes. Private Rita Vrataski."

"Are you all right?"

"I wanted to thank you for your help," said Rita. "And to speak with you." Her eyes flicked to the guard and back. "In confidence."

The guard scowled. "Your voice...."

"Ms. Ripley, all I'm asking is for a few minutes of your time," said Rita, rushing ahead. "I need advice. Quiet badly."

Ripley stood, arms crossed, and regarded her for several long seconds. Then Ripley sighed and let her hands fall to her sides. "I have some work to do back at the hangar," she said. "You can talk to me there."

*

Just inside the hangar was a row of docked civilian Jackets. Ripley walked past these to one of the tool lockers along the wall. She punched in a code, opened the door, and took out an orange plastic toolbox. Then she came back over to the Jackets again, stopping at the one furthest from the hangar doors.

"The right-hand grip's acting up," she said. She set the toolbox down on top of the console, opened it, pulled out a set of pliers. "Pretty sure I damaged it this morning. The hydraulic line on the right elbow joint is a little frayed."

"You do your own maintenance."

"It keeps me busy."

"How did you end up here?" asked Rita, impatient. They only had a couple hours of daylight left.

Ripley positioned a bucket underneath the Jacket's arm. "Here specifically? Or here in the UDF, talking to soldiers about how to fight Mimics?"

"The latter."

Ripley loosened some fastening Rita couldn't see. The hydraulic line came loose, and a viscous amber liquid began to drain into the bucket. "I was second officer on a cargo ship," she said. "The Nostromo. We'd been at sea for two days when a private aircraft ditched a few miles away. We changed course to intercept and offer aid, but the crew and passengers were dead when we arrived." Ripley paused. The flow of hydraulic fluid had stopped, and she moved the bucket to one side.

"Not from the crash," said Rita.

"No." Ripley followed the cable up along the Jacket's arm, unfastening it where it had been tethered in place. "They looked like they'd been mauled. I'd stayed back on the Nostromo. There's no cell reception that far out, so they couldn't send photos. My crew mates had to describe everything over the radio."

"You knew something was wrong," said Rita.

"It was a private jet. Expensive. I thought maybe someone had taken their pet tiger on board. A lion. Wealthy people killed by their own bad choices." Ripley pulled a cable loose from the arm, coiled it loosely, and dropped it on the floor by her feet. "I told them we should leave. I told them to get back in the zodiac, get away from that jet, just leave the whole thing for someone else to deal with. Someone who'd know what they were doing."

"But."

"They wanted the salvage. I think they were stuffing silverware into their pants when the first Mimic came up through the floor." She found a new cable in the orange box, uncoiled it, checked its length for imperfections. "After that, it's hard to know exactly what happened. Kane and Brett died on the plane. Captain Dallas made it onto the Zodiac, I think, but I never saw him again. They must have knocked him into the water. That left Ash, Lambert and Parker. And me."

Ripley wiped sweat from her forehead with the back one one hand. It pulled a trail of grease across her skin. "The Mimics got on board somehow. They can swim, you know. Short distances anyway. We barricaded ourselves on the bridge. I told everyone I wanted to scuttle the ship, take a lifeboat, just get out of there. They wanted to wait to be rescued. They wouldn't leave." She carefully fastened the new cable in place. Her throat moved as she swallowed. "I went down to the engine room on my own. I took a flare gun and a pipe wrench. That was all I could find."

"How many Mimics were on the ship?"

"Not sure. More than two. I killed that many, and they definitely weren't alone. The baggage hold of the jet must have been full of them."

"You killed two Mimics," said Rita. "With a flare gun."

"And a wrench."

Rita stared at her.

"It was a big wrench," said Ripley. She let out a long breath. "I disconnected a few pipes from the seawater intake. Opened the valve. Flooded the engine room. Ran back up to the deck. Got into a life boat."

"How did you know there wouldn't be a Mimic inside?"

"I didn't," said Ripley. "There was. Saw it just before I dropped the boat down into the water. Couldn't get past it to try another boat. I basically just hit it in the head until it backed out of the hatch."

"And then the American Navy picked you up."

"Unfortunately, yes. Five days later."

"Unfortunately."

Ripley carefully placed a funnel. "You remember how it was. They were trying to contain information. Keep people from panicking. If it got out that Mimics were sneaking onto planes, the EU would've locked down every airport on the continent. They wouldn't have let military aircraft take off. Probably would've closed the harbors, too. You see? What happened to me was inconvenient."

She picked up the bucket. "The company was furious of course," she said. She slowly poured the fluid back into her Jacket's system. "The military wouldn't confirm anything I said. My boss thought I'd gone crazy, murdered the rest of the crew, scuttled millions of dollars of cargo. Couldn't understand why I wasn't in jail." She stopped pouring, put the bucket down, went back to work on the cables. "That was not a good year."

"But you're here," said Rita.

"I am here." Ripley sighed. Rita got the sense that she'd told this part of the story many times. "For a lot of boring and not actually important reasons, they were keeping me at one of the new UDF bases in Berlin. The Mimics took the city in the middle of the night, broke into the building around dawn. I was in there there with two other women -- detained protesters, I think. The guards ran away and left us. Guns were all locked up." She spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. "I had to improvise."

For several minutes, Rita watched her work in silence. Ripley finished with the repair, put her tools and the damaged cable away, climbed into the Jacket and booted it up. It whirred as she stepped down from the dock, walked out into the middle of the Hangar, spun the grips on each arm, began a series of movements that looked practiced and precise. The yellow Jacket was bulky and awkward compared to the military models, yet Ripley wore it like a skin, every step and gesture effortlessly graceful. Rita thought of videos she'd watched in her old life, of historical reenactments with men and women dueling in suits of armor, unbelievably quick and nimble in a huge metal carapace.

Ripley finished her test. She came back to the dock, clicked the Jacket in place, and began to scroll through diagnostic data on the small screen near her hand.

"Why aren't you a soldier?" asked Rita.

Ripley didn't look up, but her movement through the menus slowed. "My own reasons," she said. "I teach other people to be soldiers. That's enough."

"Teach me," said Rita. Then, "Please." There were moments when tact still mattered.

Ripley glanced up at her. "What, now?"

"Why not now?"

"Don't you have to sleep at some point? You're going to the front tomorrow."

"I can sleep tomorrow night."

Ripley closed out the Jacket's computer, climbed out of the Jacket again, stood in front of Rita with her hands in the pockets of her jumpsuit. "All right. What do you want to know?"

"What do you normally teach people?"

Ripley chuckled. "Normally, I run a week-long course."

"That's fine," said Rita. "Get me as far as you can today."

She had plenty of todays left.

*

It turned out that most of the first day of training was listening to Ripley talk.

They had moved to a storage room, out of the way of preparations for tomorrow's drop. Rita sat on a crate of Jacket parts and listened as Ripley spoke, pacing the same square of concrete floor and gesturing with her hands. At length and in great detail, Ripley explained the current understanding of how the Mimics moved. Not only their behavior, but the basic physiology of their exoskeletons, their muscular and nervous systems, the nature and precision of their senses. She described the ways in which Mimic aggression was triggered. She outlined the distance a Mimic would typically pursue you depending on climate, on how many other targets were available, on the perceived level of threat you presented.

Rita drummed her fingers on the side of the crate.

Ripley paused mid-sentence. "Private Vrataski, am I boring you?"

"I know all of this," said Rita. "Or the important parts."

"And you know what's most important," said Ripley, not sarcastic so much as weary.

Rita frowned. "I've fought them before."

"I remember."

"Not just this morning," said Rita. "I've probably logged more hours than you." She scowled and got to her feet. "I'm wasting both our time. I'll let you get back to your-"

"Stop." Ripley held up a hand. Her face had hardened. "I'm a civilian, but I'm not stupid. You're a Private. You weren't even stationed in the battalion that was supposed to be fighting tomorrow. I don't mean this as an insult, Vrataski, but you're the cook."

"I'm aware of my own job."

Ripley's hands moved to her hips. "There's something you aren't telling me."

Rita sighed. This was what she got for being careless. She considered the likelihood of Ripley turning her over to Pelt; deiced that laughter was more likely.

"I can't escape this day," she said. "I've gone into tomorrow's battle many, many times. I fight. I die. It starts again."

Ripley's brows drew together. "I don't think I'm understanding you."

"I'm trapped in a loop of time," said Rita. "When I die after the drop tomorrow, the world will be reset. I'll be in the kitchen again. I'll fight the Mimic again." She thought of Hendricks; pushed it aside. "We'll meet again, but not for the first time. Not for me.

Ripley considered this for what felt like a very long time. "You're telling me you're Phil Connors," she said.

"I don't understand," said Rita, because she didn't.

"From Groundhog Day. The movie."

"I haven't seen it."

Ripley did laugh, then, though not at all in the way Rita had expected.

Rita took a moment to gather herself, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands. The novelty of this conversation was exhausting. "You believe me, then?"

A shrug. "It would explain it a few things."

"You don't have to believe me," said Rita. "That's fine. All I ask is that you humor me for a moment."

"All right."

Rita inhaled and exhaled, deep and deliberate. "I'm going to die tomorrow-"

"Not necessarily."

"And then I'm going to wake up in the kitchen. And I'll see you again." Rita met Ripley's eyes. "What can I say that will convince you? What will make you believe that this is happening to me?"

"You mean like something no one else would know about me?" Ripley looked skeptical. "This is very strange way to get personal information out of someone."

"It doesn't have to be important," said Rita. "It doesn't even have to be a secret. I don't care. As long as it proves that we've had this conversation. That I am who I say I am." She swallowed through a sudden tightness in her throat. "That what's happening to me is real."

Ripely's expression sobered. "All right," she said. "Tell me you would have saved the cat, too."

An incredulous pause. "Are you joking?"

"I woke up thinking about it this morning."

Rita held out her hands, drawing the shape of her confusion. "What cat?"

Ripley's lips quirked into a grim smile. "I'll tell you about that next time."

*

Rita died on a narrow country road, three miles from the battlefield. She had decided she wanted to get a better feel for the surrounding landscape, and had run from the drop zone at full-speed as soon as her feet made contact with the ground. She blew past a knot of Mimics that had hid themselves in a vegetable garden, through a farm yard and out onto the sun-cracked asphalt, the sounds of explosions fading into the distance behind her.

She didn't know where the last mimic came from. She never saw it.

***

She fired her gun into the Mimic's eye until her magazine was empty. Its body went limp and ashen. Ripley dropped it on the floor, her lip curled in disgust.

Rita holstered her weapon, silently rehearsing her next words. She turned to Ripley, who was already watching her, and said, "I know you want to go back and look for survivors. But I need to you come and find me as soon as you're done."

Ripley squinted a little, confused. "I'm sorry, don't..."

"I would have saved the cat," said Rita, louder than she'd intended.

Ripley's mouth opened, closed, opened again. "What?"

"The cat," said Rita. "I would have saved it, too."

Ripley turned the entire Jacket to face her, the bulk of it seeming to fill the room. "Who are you?"

"Private Rita Vrataski," she said. "I need your help."

*

The second lesson was conducted in a field at the edge of the compound, where a crumbling stone wall gave them a little cover. Having given Rita instructions to suit up and meet her there after the assembly, Ripley arrived in a Jacket of her own. A military model, gray and spindly, which Rita had never seen her wear.

"I didn't think you were allowed to use those," said Rita.

"The Jacket is fine," said Ripley. "It's the ammunition that makes them nervous."

She explained they would be working on agility. Rita rolled her eyes a bit as she watched Ripley demonstrate the movements they'd be practicing. She was reminded of childhood dance lessons her mother had forced her to attend.

When told to follow along, her skepticism faltered. She had worn this Jacket for thousands of hours, but this routine made obvious its flaws in design, each movement calculated to be uncomfortable and awkward.

"All right," said Ripley, just as Rita was starting to feel less like like a turtle on its back. "Let's try it at full speed."

*

The Mimic on the road was easy to spot, once she knew what to look for -- crouched in the shadow of an empty farm stand, its carapace shining in spots of sunlight.

She fired. It fell. She continued up the road. The fields to either side limited how far she could see but a hill rose ahead of her, maybe a kilometer away.

Mimics tore out of the wheat. The hill inched closer.

A blur of movement punched through the surface of the road.

***

"You want me to...what? Spar with you? Hand-to-hand?"

"Yes," said Ripley. She was in her yellow Jacket again.

"I'm not going to be fighting soldiers."

"I've made some modifications to the controllers," said Ripley. She tapped through menus on her arm, then looked up. "Are you ready?"

Rita bent her knees, her feet planted solid and wide. "Yes."

Ripley careened forward, the grips of one arm extended like a lance, so sudden and quick that Rita stumbled backward in haste. She parried with her forearm, only to be struck from behind.

As she struggled to stay upright, Rita's pulse quickened with effort and adrenaline. Something about the way Ripley moved set Rita's teeth on edge -- the speed and pace of her steps, the angle of her strikes, all of it felt wrong in away she couldn't pinpoint. Unnatural.

She had been thrown to the ground a half-dozen times before she put the pieces together.

"How are you doing that?" Rita asked. She panted, sweat rolling down her temples and soaking her collar.

"I have a friend who's handy with robotics," said Ripley. "I gave him data on Mimic locomotion. He gave me a patch for my Jacket."

"Smart friend."

Ripley grinning. "I collect them, apparently."

*

She couldn't see anything from the top of the hill but wheat, farmhouses, and plumes of black smoke.

Waste of time. Waste of ammo.

Reckless and irritable, she cut straight through a field. When nothing killed her, she felt irrationally furious.

She made it back to the drop site. The cratered meadows and blackened grain were silent. A few Mimics were patrolling the borders of the battlefield. Nothing in a Jacket moved.

She heard something rustle; saw movement in the tall grass.

She sighed.

***

She trained. She fought. She died.

At some point, the cycle had begun to feel almost comforting. A familiar routine.

***

rushing through space, pulled across time and distance, water in her eyes and ears and throat, bubbles rising from below as something pulsed in the cold black

***

"I have a new problem," said Rita.

"New to you or just new to me?"

"Both," said Rita. "I'm starting to run out of ammo."

"Can't you ask for a larger allotment?"

"I've been stealing it for months, now," said Rita -- her months, no one else's. "There's only so much I can practically carry. I tried sneaking a whole case onto the drop ship, but then I have to stay close to it on the ground. Not practical."

"I can't make your ammunition lighter."

Rita waved this off, impatient. "When you were on the ship. You said you fought the Mimics with a wrench."

"It's not the weapon I would have picked if I'd had a choice."

"But you did it."

"That's true."

"So it's possible to kill Mimics without using guns."

"Yes. Technically."

"I need a weapon that isn't a gun," said Rita. "Something I can carry with me. Use when the ammunition's gone."

"All right."

"And I want you to design it for me."

Ripley snorted. "You're joking."

"It needs to be something I can build in an afternoon," said Rita. She pulled her notebook and a pen out of her pocket. Picking them up from her bunk had become part of the routine. "I can't carry anything through the loop with me."

"You're not joking."

Rita frowned.

"All right. Sure. Let's see what we can do."

They sat together on the wall for a rare afternoon of peaceful conversation, out under the cloud-studded sky. Ripley drew shapes and scribbled measurements. Rita found a large weather-smoothed branch under a tree and swung it around, Ripley watching her with amused appraisal.

Rita didn't mention the dreams. They made her feel foolish and wrong-footed, and she'd grown too used to certainty.

***

couldn't breath, couldn't speak, but she could feel the inhuman malice of the thing, knew the intensity of its need, its hunger, reaching for her, into her chest, boiling through her blood

***

Raylle took the paper from her, curious but confused. A skinny rectangle was drawn on it in pen, a line sticking out of the bottom to indicate a handle and the specifics of dimensions and materials scrawled in Rita's untidy handwriting beside it. "I don't understand. What is this exactly?"

"A weapon," said Rita, distracted. She flipped through customizations on her Jacket's console. "I need it by tomorrow morning."

"Are these numbers right? Five feet long?"

"Not including the handle, yes."

Raylle refolded the drawing. "We don't have anything like this."

"I know," said Rita. "I need you to make it for me."

"I'm not, like, a blacksmith."

"You're the most capable technician in this camp," said Rita. "I'm confident you can help me solve this problem."

Raylle scratched the back of her neck, thinking. "I know a couple guys in the machine shop...they might be able to figure something out...?"

"Good."

Raylle opened the paper again, looked it over, frowned, looked back at Rita. "What, you want to do this now?"

"Yes."

The left the armory together, Rita still in her Jacket and Raylle quick-stepping beside her. "I uh...I don't mean to be rude here," said Raylle. "But do you have any kind of like...orders? To be doing this?"

"No."

"Oh." Raylle considered this as they passed the temporary mess hall. "Okay."

They kept walking.

***

It turned out that Rita had a knack for killing Mimics with an enormous steel machete.

She wasted two loops trying to figure out how to sneak it onto the drop ship undetected. She complained during training, and Ripley suggested she just walk on board with it and see if anyone stopped her.

They didn't. Rita assumed they'd all decided she was crazy. Which, to be fair, was only half-wrong.

On her first few drops with the sword in hand, she didn't even turn off her safety. She wanted to squeeze as much utility out of her battlefield time as she could.

She tore through limbs and javelins and hissing mouths, grunting with effort and exhilaration. The joints of her Jacket squealed from the strain. Her blade shone with viscera and blood.

She hardly noticed the other soldiers, now. They'd become part of the landscape -- obstacles to be remembered, targets to be defended, complications in her path to victory. Whatever victory meant to someone like her.

She felt like she was disconnecting from the world.

***

mountainside, slide down snowy peaks into trees and green hillsides, down past the stone spire of a lighthouse, down to the mirror surface and below, the green depths, the blue depths, luminescent death watching her, choking her, the water

***

"I think I know what's happening. Sort of. It's hard to explain..." They were sitting on the wall again, their Jackets standing idle in the field a few meters away. Rita rested her forehead in her hands. "I'm sorry, I know you've just met me. This must all feel completely inappropriate."

Ripley chuckled. "I stopped caring about 'appropriate' a long time ago." She leaned back on her palms. The wind tugged at the curls that hung around her face. "Tell me about your dream."

"That's the thing," said Rita. "I'm not...I don't think that it's a dream."

"All right."

"I can see this...creature. In a lake somewhere. In the mountains. It has to be a Mimic, only it's enormous. Like a building. This huge, evil thing under the water. And I think..." Rita licked her lips, her face growing hot with embarrassment. "I think it's what's letting me do this. What's giving me the power to reset day."

She waited for Ripley to laugh.

After a few moments, Ripley said, "You think that your ability is connected to them. The Mimics."

"The first time I died, I had just killed one of them. Only it was different from the others. Blue instead of red. And larger. And its blood..." She touched her cheek. "Something was very different about it. It must be what started this."

"All right," said Ripley. She thought a little longer. "And you want to kill it."

"Yes."

"What do you think will happen?"

"I'm not sure," said Rita. She twisted her fingers together in her lap. "I think it controls more than just the time loops. I think...maybe it controls the Mimics, too. All of them. Like some kind of a queen."

"So killing this thing in the mountains..." Ripley lingered on the words. "Could stop the Mimics altogether."

Rita nodded, her jaw tight. Still unsure if Ripley believed any of this.

"Do you have something to write on?" Ripley asked

Rita pulled out the notebook and pen.

Ripley took them, flipped to a fresh page, clicked the pen open. "How much do you remember about the lake?"

"What?"

"In your dream. Were there any landmarks? Something we could use to narrow it down."

"Yes...there's ah. There's German writing on some of the buildings." Rita closed her eyes. "Snow on the mountains. A lighthouse. Old. Made of stone."

She opened her eyes as Ripley flipped the notebook closed and stood, brushing moss and twigs from her coveralls. "All right, then," she said, and started walking back toward the camp.

"Where are you going?"

"The office," said Ripley. "We have to look some things up."

***

violated, stolen its power, used its teeth against its own limbs, its own cells, its millions of knives that it would throw at her, punish her, take back what she had wrenched undeserving from its

***

"It's at the bottom of Lake Constance, near the lighthouse at Lindau." Rita pointed on the map. "That's about five hours from here, assuming we have some sort of vehicle. I'm at the point where I can survive long enough to leave the drop zone. The problem is, all I've seen near the drop is farm machinery and a few trucks. I know that I can hot-wire the trucks, but they never have much gas and their mileage is terrible."

"There must be gas stations somewhere near here," said Ripley. "Or a gas can in someone's garage."

They sat in the trailer near the guard house, their faces lit by the screen of the camp's computer.

"Everything within range has been abandoned," said Rita. "The farmhouses have all been picked over." She leaned back in her folding metal chair and rubbed her eyes. She hadn't entirely figured out how to ask for this next part.

"I know that you're a non-combatant," said Rita. "But I need you to help me. Not here. Out at the drop."

Ripley turned in her chair to look at Rita. "All right."

"There are several growlers in the main garage. They're simple to drive, and have large fuel tanks. I've already filled the one closest to the wall with gas." Rita pulled a set of keys from her pocket and held them out. "The drop will put me on the ground at eight tomorrow morning. I'll be finished by noon. I need you to come and meet me."

Ripley took the keys. "On the battlefield?"

"Yes."

"And then we'll drive to Lindau and....what? Drop a crate of grenades into the lake?"

Rita's mouth twitched. "Something along those lines."

Ripley frowned. "There's no way to know there won't be Mimics on the road," she said. "Cars attract them."

Rita's confidence faltered. "Maybe, but-"

"How about I just steal a helicopter?"

Rita opened her mouth but didn't speak, momentarily derailed. Eventually she said, "You know how to fly a helicopter."

"How do you think I got out of Berlin?"

***

pulsing malice, tendrils floating in the the cold, reaching for her, curling around her throat, pulling her

***

A dozen or so rigid bodies were piled on the grass near the citadel wall, the sight somewhere in the uncanny valley between fashion dolls and corpses. Their costumes had been stripped off, and the bare pink plastic shone in the sun.

Behind her, the scritch-fizzle of a match. The sweet-sour smell of burning tobacco.

She jumped sideways, pulled a cleaver from the magnetic rack of knives on the wall by the sink, turned around, met Hendricks' eyes.

"I'm sorry, Charlie," she said.

The wall behind him exploded.

She caught a large iron skillet as it flew past her ear, spun it into a firmer grip, knocked a splintered cutting board aside a few inches from her face. The Mimic surged toward her through the settling dust. She split its face in two with the cleaver, pulled the blade free, slammed the Mimic with a backhand swing. It fell, stiff and gray, as a yellow civilian Jacket crashed through the doorway.

Ripley's eyes swept over the rubble. Dark curls were stuck to her face with sweat. "Where..."

"It's dead." Rita dropped the cleaver and the skillet, their impacts dull in the crumbled plaster. She looked directly into Ripley's eyes. "My name is Private Rita Vrataski," she said. "I would have saved the cat."

*

At six minutes past three, the officer manning the camp's radio room stepped away from her desk to use the copy machine next door. Rita walked in, opened the third desk drawer from the top, retrieved a stack of detailed topographical maps, waited just inside the doorway as a guard passed, then slipped into the hall several seconds before the radio officer rounded the corner again.

Ripley was waiting for her at the wall. As requested, she'd brought the small folding table that was stored in the back of the guard house, for when the soldiers there played poker games in the small hours.

"One important thing to keep in mind," said Rita, midway through this latest twist on a well-rehearsed conversation, "is that you have to stay a minimum of ten meters above the ground until I signal 'all clear.'"

Ripley frowned. "I know Mimics can jump."

"That didn't stop you from flying too low the first time we tried this," said Rita. She pulled out another map and spread it over the others on the table. "The next problem is here, over these hills." She pointed. "They've got some sort of biological anti-aircraft artillery. Last time we tried circling around to the east, but the updrafts there keep slamming us into the mountainside."

"Not ideal."

"No."

"So what, we'll go west this time?"

"Oh no," said Rita. "I'm going to bring a missile launcher. We'll just go straight over."

*

This would be the time.

She leapt toward a Mimic she couldn't yet see, her sword already in motion as shining slate coils burst from the soil. She caught a second on her backswing, fired a grenade into the field beside her, pulled her blade free from the stiffening corpse and cut through the Mimics she'd driven out of the wheat.

"Watch out," she called, and a soldier stopped short of planting his foot into a wasps' nest of javelins and claws. She pushed off from the grass, stabbed straight down into the earth, pushed off from it and vaulted over the soldier's head. She emptied two magazines into a rush of gray bodies that poured over the hillside, converging on the threat she presented with their usual singleminded focus.

Half-past eleven. She didn't need to look at her display. She doubled-back, yanked her sword from the ground, ran at full-tilt toward the squad she knew had been cornered under her old tree.

This would be the time. She could feel it. She was going to win, and not only this battle. She was going to win everything. The war. Her life. She would have a life again. She would win back her mortality.

Tomorrow, she would wake to a different morning. She would see a different sky.

Ripley would remember her.

Her blade whistled as it sliced the air, black streams of blood running along its length, spattering her face as she killed them. As she killed all of them, all of their hard rattling bodies, their blunt red faces, all crushed and shattered and sliced and broken. The field stunk of sulfur. The wheat was thick with their corpses.

Between their screams, she heard the low and distant thrumming of rotors.

They were going to make it.

Rita shifted her grip, crouched, sprinted along the pebbled road with her sword pointed into the Mimic about to tear over the next rise.

Something shifted under her foot. A rock. She'd planted her step wrong.

Her pace faltered, her focus shifting away from the Mimic ahead, to the placement of her weight as she regained her balance.

*

She woke to a room she didn't know.

The light was bright and directly in her eyes. She smelled blood and bleach and iodine. Her entire body hurt. The room was very loud.

She felt profoundly wrong.

"Rita."

Her head jerked toward the voice, and the pain in her temples spiked with the sudden movement.

Ripley was sitting next to her. On a metal stool, beside a rack covered in equipment. Medical equipment.

Rita sat up, which made her head hurt even more.

"What happened? Where is this?" She looked down at the IV in her arm, then back at Ripley, panic clawing up her throat. "What happened?"

"You were injured." Ripley's voice was quiet and serious. "You lost a lot of blood."

"Where am I?"

"I put you in the helicopter and brought you back to Verdun," said Ripley. "To the hospital."

Rita tasted bile. "I don't understand," she said. "The power's gone. I can feel that it's gone."

Ripley sat in penitent silence, holding Rita's gaze. She was wearing the same gray jumpsuit, now splattered with dark stains.

"Tell me you made it to the lake," said Rita. "Tell me you took care of it."

"I'm sorry."

Hot tears spilled down Rita's cheeks. "Why didn't you kill me?" she whispered, her voice hoarse.

"I've lost too many people," said Ripley. "I couldn't-"

"Why didn't you kill me?" she said again, furious and fraught and much too loud. "I told you how it worked."

"Rita-"

"I told you." She was screaming. She pounded her fists on the thin hospital mattress. "I fucking told you! You coward!"

Ripley stood.

"Why didn't you kill me?"

"I couldn't," said Ripley. "I'm sorry, Rita."

She turned and left the room.

Rita pushed her knuckles against her eyes and shook with terror and grief.

*

The UDF agreed to take her to Lake Constance. They were eager for her to start her promotional tour, but she wouldn't be ready for public appearances for several weeks, at least. In the meantime, she had earned the right to a few eccentricities.

She stood beside the lighthouse and looked down into the water.

The town had been evacuated some time ago, but there were no Mimics in the hills. Nothing waited for them in the empty streets.

She took a boat and a case of grenades out to the place she remembered. She armed the grenades and dropped them over the side, one after another.

Nothing but bubbles moved below the surface.

She had come too late.

*

Rita Vrataski became the Angel of Verdun.

Her first time on the battlefield -- her first day in a Jacket -- and she had killed hundreds of Mimics on her own. She had saved hundreds of lives.

They assigned her to a new squad, most of them showboating veterans who wanted to die with a gun in their hands. She liked a few well enough; most she found arrogant and tiresome. She held herself apart from them all.

Years later, now a Sergeant whose face was plastered on building-sized posters, she was stationed temporarily in the UGF camp at Heathrow. The plan was to retake a Mimic-held beach on the coast of France. They called it "Operation Downfall." She thought the whole thing sounded foolish, but no one asked her.

The day before they were due to ship out, a great many things changed all at once.

She felt an ache in her chest as something tugged on old scars; on what was left of the part of her that had once controlled the days.

The General told her, a short time later, that circumstances had changed.

She went to meditate in the gym. She wanted to be alone.

A stranger interrupted her.

She stood, noted his uniform, saw he was a Major. "Yes?" she said. She'd never really recovered her tact. "What do you want?"

He'd chuckled, inexplicably, and said, "You told me to come find you when I woke up."

*

Major William Cage explained, later, that on his first loop through she'd been killed as she'd stepped out of a fallen drop ship. That if not for the blue Alpha Mimic that had melted into his blood a few minutes later, her story would have ended then. Quick and pointless.

She asked him not to tell her anything else about her lost histories.

She'd had enough of that splintered life.

*

Rita put in for permanent leave. She paid for it in press conferences and endorsements, but they gave it to her in the end. No one could argue that she deserved a little peace.

At her request, the UDF had stopped forwarding her mail several years ago. The majority of it was letters from strangers -- school children, other soldiers, people who wanted to fuck her, conspiracy theorists, biographers. She'd told the mail office to throw everything away, with only one exception.

On the day she was discharged, she collected a neat stack of letters. Most were years old, now. One had been sent a week ago. The postmark was American, from a city she didn't recognize.

*

The Rochester Institute of Technology was buried under several feet of snow. Rita's guide lead her through a series of concrete tunnels, the ceilings lined with pipes and florescent lighting. "You've got really good timing," he said. He was in his twenties and much too cheerful. "She'll be going on sabbatical in another couple of weeks. You almost missed her!"

Rita made a small noise of acknowledgment. She didn't like being underground.

Her guide lead her up a narrow stairway, through several metal doors and into a large carpeted room that hummed with end-of-semester urgency. Students were clustered around robotic arms and partially-assembled Jackets, typing commands into terminals and arguing with each other. The opposite wall was lined with windows that flooded the room in snow-blue sunlight.

A tall woman dressed in beige and gray stood a few meters away. She was speaking with an anxious knot of students. Her cheekbones were sharper than Rita remembered. Her hair, longer now and pulled into a loose braid, was graying at the temples.

For a few seconds, Rita was frozen in place by uncharacteristic nerves. She'd thought she was long past concerns of etiquette, but apparently some part of her still cared about making good impressions.

She took a deep breath and walked across the room.

"Ripley."

Ripley looked over at her. Their eyes connected. Ripley said something Rita couldn't hear, and the students all turned to stare at her.

"I'm sorry," said Rita.

Ripley finished her conversation with her students. She spoke to a few other groups, nodding at their answers, pointing to data on their screens, examining their handiwork. The guide had left, and Rita stood alone beside the door, trying not to fidget.

Ripley walked toward her, indicated that Rita should follow, and lead her into a small room a little ways down the hall. An office, spartan but comfortable. There were photographs on the desk -- the same person as a girl, a teenager, a woman.

Ripley closed the door behind them, took a seat, and waited for Rita to do the same.

"I wasn't sure I'd see you again," she said.

"I'm sorry," Rita said. Not for the last time, she was certain. "I have no right to ask anything of you. I know that. But I've spent more time with you than almost anyone else in my life. I know you don't remember, but..." She paused and took a breath. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have let this go on for so long."

"It's all right," said Ripley, with no hesitation. "I'm glad you came."

Rita felt a tightness in her chest. "There's something I forgot to ask you," she said.

"Oh?"

"The cat."

Ripley's brows drew together.

"The cat you saved," said Rita. "What were you talking about?"

Ripley leaned back in her chair and laughed. "That's...an interesting story..." she said.

She told it.

****