Before the war, Rita didn't dream. Her brother found it a source of unending fascination. "You don't dream, or you don't remember?" he would ask.
"I don't know," she would tell him. "Either one. Both?"
He dreamt in enormous ribbons of narrative and nonsense. Loved to attempt to meticulously unspool each for her, detailing everything he saw in his sleep.
"It was like that, I guess," he would say, over and over, "but more."
Everything was always more. He could never find the right words to express it to his own satisfaction. Frustration bled from his voice but Rita would close her eyes and imagine what it was he saw. She was satisfied, even if he wasn't. Through him, she flew high and dove deep and battled fearsome monsters and met long-dead heroes and ate sumptuous meals on candied clouds and a thousand other impossible things, often well before breakfast.
"I bet you just don't remember," he would say. "Yours are probably ten times as good as mine."
Sometimes Rita woke with her heart in her throat. She wouldn't remember whatever it was that had caused it, only the inevitability of it. Sometimes she woke up already dizzy, breathing so fast she started to hyperventilate, her bedroom fading at edges around her, burning in her eyes and skin and lungs.
"There's no way mine would be better than yours," she would tell him. "Tell me the one with the carousel again?"
Rita sat unmoving at the other end of the sofa. For hours. Eyes glued to the television screen. To the staticky bursts of horror, moving almost too fast for her to process one before the next showed up.
The newsreaders had given up on trying to fill the spaces with words. In the corner of the screen, two of them sat at a desk, hands over their mouths. Quiet sobbing filled the room. Rita couldn't tell where it was coming from.
She'd been living with that pit in her stomach for what felt like years. Nausea rode along with her every move. Sometimes she went a few hours as if everything was normal, but soon enough it would come rising up to meet her again.
The morning after it happened, her roommates had called her over to watch the Hamburg meteor on a laptop. Another curiosity amid many they scrolled through day after day. Shaky dashboard cams captured bleeped German curses. Traffic cameras showed a tidy garden square before rubble tumbled across it and the feeds went dark.
She remembered standing with her brother, somewhere near Paris. Some field where they'd stopped on the road to somewhere else. A caravan park, or perhaps a tiny roadside inn. They were watching thick dark clouds scud toward them from the horizon—she was, anyway. Her brother was eating ice cream, making faces at the ridiculous cartoon characters that winked up from the shiny paper wrapper.
Lightning cracked down, so close she felt the sizzle on her scalp. They threw themselves down, hugging the ground with outstretched arms and laughing through their terror.
Later that night, when the storm had passed, they snuck up the hill and found a tree split in two. Smoke still clung to its blackened limbs.
"Do you think anyone ever sees it coming?" he asked.
The lightning, the destruction, death. Maybe he meant the storm itself, how it had seemed to sneak up on them, because they didn't know enough about how to spot one approaching. Rita didn't know which it was, so she shrugged. She didn't care much one way or the other. She wanted to be snug in her cot, not shivering atop a wet and muddy hill.
"I bet I'd see it coming."
But he didn't. Not when it mattered for him.
Now, watching as those things spun a web of destruction across Germany, Rita thought maybe no one ever did.
And then, there it was. Those bits of rubble in a Hamburg square—as familiar now as her own face in the mirror—replaced by a devastation so complete it beggared the imagination. Rita thought of her brother. Wondered if anything he'd dreamt had ever looked like this.
"Munich has fallen," the newsreaders said, a few hours later, when they said anything at all. "Munich is gone."
They had all gone for Oktoberfest there once, when Rita was so little all she really remembered now were gray buildings, cobblestones, the thick scent of spilled beer where it flowed through a gutter. Grandpa was drunk. Never again, as far as she knew, but he was that night. He rolled his pants above his bony knees and clapped along with an oompah band. His legs were so white they looked green in the dying light. Blood spattered his collar when he saluted the crowd and shouted, when a man with a broad red face punched him in the nose.
"There are some things you can't get back," Grandpa would say, years later when Rita asked him why. "But you always have to try."
"It's a supermarket, Mum. If I'm not there to stack whatever produce makes it past the blockade, it's hardly the end of the world."
Rita didn't flinch when she heard it tumble out, but her mother did.
"Well, we certainly don't need the money, not with.... "
Music blared from the television, pulling them both into a breaking news report that did nothing but repeat the breaking news from an earlier hour.
They hadn't switched channels for more than a few minutes in weeks, always on the endless repetition of war dispatches and domestic shortages. As if there was anything they could do with the information that never stopped streaming in.
"Nowhere to spend it even if we did," her mother went on, when the newsreaders segued into a satellite interview. "But you can't sit around here all day. You'll go mad right along with me."
There was an American speaking now, a military man. Glib, earnest words fell from behind his gleaming teeth into spaces the newsreaders couldn't fill with anything but fumbling. He looked like he knew what he was doing. Like he believed utterly in what he said.
"I'll find something else," Rita promised.
She already had, but there was no need to worry her family with that yet.
Precautionary, the news said. No imminent threat, only an abundance of caution, that was all.
"Mind your own fucking business, how about that?" their sergeant told them. Even in the barracks, away from her barked orders, the party line prevailed.
For the most part.
"Precautionary, my ass," Kahlor drawled from the next bunk.
"Nothing cautious about that," someone said back. A farting noise rippled out of the dark, snickers close behind it.
Rita kept her eyes closed. She missed home, her bed, the comforting sounds of her parents arguing in the kitchen below. She even missed the constant buzz of noise from the TV, the senseless commercials that seemed drawn from another reality. The model-perfect newsreaders, babbling the same questions over and over, as though new answers would ever come from the plastic talking heads smiling witlessly about resistance and endurance.
Her legs ached. They hadn't stopped aching in weeks, even on days when they didn't have to run the entire base. Her shoulders were bruised from the training suits. Hips and knees, too, even the soles of her feet. Everything hurt enough to keep her from falling asleep—right up until the moment when she inevitably succumbed to the comforting blankness.
"My great-grandpa used to talk about how beautiful the city was during the war," someone said in the next row. Their voice was low, wondering, the way her brother used to speak in the soft grey light of dawn.
"We're in the war, dumbfuck," Kahlor answered.
Rita clenched her fists, enjoying a little how her muscles complained with every bit of movement. At least she still had muscles to complain.
"My grandma used to say it was a shithole," she said. The words sounded as sour as they felt. "Pigeon shit, to be precise."
Kahlor snorted, but Rita could feel the waves of disapproval rolling off of Hendricks in the bunk below. She crossed her arms over her eyes and rubbed at the moisture that had started to slide down into her hair.
"But my grandma could be a real asshole," she added. There were enough reasons to be cynical. Maybe for once she could leave it at that.
She could hardly tell which end was up. Everything around her was an endless expanse of grey: grass, sky, road, concrete walls bursting to let whirling horrors through.
Rita gritted her teeth and kept going, thunking her suit's legs forward one step after another. Hendricks, beside her, let out huge whooping cheers whenever he blew apart another Mimic, but Rita had to keep her jaw locked to stop her screams from slipping out.
A whistling noise from above sent them running for cover in a tumbling-down building on the river's edge. Explosions rocked the far bank, sending fire and debris up over their heads to clatter down into the street.
"How much farther?" she asked.
Hendricks had a real head for directions. They'd gone together on a weekend furlough once, deep into the countryside where Rita was turned around for days, unable to grasp where she was in relation to anything else. Hendricks laughed at her then unerringly marched them right back to where they meant to be.
"Once we get across the river? Eight klicks to the Ossuary, give or take."
They'd watched the supply drop from their previous position. Crates floated gently down, beautiful black smudges against the grey skies. Ammo and batteries galore. The planes had gotten through somehow, past the enemy that encircled Verdun below the river. The enemy that could leap up into the air, tentacles grinding behind them like propellers, something they hadn't seen before in any of the reconnaissance materials.
Another whistle overhead. Rita dropped her head, scrabbled at the small of her back with one hand for her canteen. The ground shook with another explosion, then a series of smaller vibrations, a steady hum that rose up through her.
"You ready?" Hendricks asked. He slammed another round of ammo into the gun at his hip, then cracked his neck and grinned. His teeth were blinding in the greyness. "Show these fucks who's boss?"
Rita didn't have time to answer him with anything more than a grimace.
One second he smiled at her, weapons locked and loaded, concrete dust a pale mask over his skin. The next he disappeared into a cloud of rubble and metal limbs and a horrible mist that painted the greyness into scarlet, into a roar of noise that slapped at Rita so hard she flew backward, mouth open and screaming, tasting the bitter sizzle of lightning on her tongue, feeling like she was split in two, a blackened tree atop a muddy hill, whirling death falling into her.
She squeezed a trigger, whatever one was in range of her hand still. In range of whatever was left of her hand. The Mimic above her flew apart in a burst of light that seared her eyes and skin and lungs, burrowed deep into her and pulled out a memory, a dream maybe, her very first: her brother, standing on her doorstep, whole and healthy again, older than he could ever have been, laughing with a stranger's face.
"You did see it coming," she thought, and then she thought no more.
Rita didn't stay to watch, just thunked down the next street, then the next. She hadn't slept in weeks. Longer, maybe. Awake for two days, over and over again, no end in sight. If she died early, she still woke up the day before. If she managed to get all the way through Verdun, past wherever she'd gotten before, it made no difference. There was no rest. No time.
She woke up. She argued with Carter, or didn't. She fucked Hendricks, or didn't, or Kahlor, or didn't. She ate, suited up, dropped into hell all over again.
"Might be worth heading up to the Ossuary anyway," Hendricks said.
"Knock yourself out," Rita told him. She pulled her sidearm and kicked her way into yesterday again.
"Not much farther," she said. "Just over the ridge from here. We'll be there in no time."
Hendricks kept his hands pressed against the hole in her side, urging her not to give up. Calling her every name in the book while she laughed and brushed her thumb against his wrist.
"I've been ducking this longer than anybody else ever did," she told him. "But don't worry. It's only for a minute."
"I don't know what the fuck you're talking about."
"You never do. It's okay." She could taste the blood in her mouth now, and the acid that meant it wasn't long now. Even if he could get her to a medic, there wasn't anything that could be done. If death had a punch card, she'd already have earned a free one exactly like this a dozen times over.
The ground beneath them hummed when she pulled the pins.
"It's okay," she said. "It's only for a minute."
Stopped trying to get through Verdun without taking the Omega with her. Stopped trying to save Hendricks. Stopped trying to save herself.
She got so close. The Omega pulsed with such incredible power that she could feel in her own body. It burned in her head like a beacon, guiding her through the carnage to find it. She cut through the enemy like a wildfire, raced into the trees and up toward the Ossuary. Somewhere in the battle behind her, Hendricks and Yen and Kahlor and Cox and the Singhs were doing the same, walking their own doomed paths until they ran out of steps.
As she ran across the empty parking lot, into the rows of crosses, something bounced up off the ground and slammed into her leg. A glancing blow, one that did more damage to her suit than to her. She felt the hot sticky blood dripping down inside her pant leg, turning it stiff and black.
The Omega shrieked in her head, wordless, soundless, pulses of that blinding light driving her closer and closer, until she fell headfirst into the trench. Crawled forward when her leg gave out, dragging her rotor blade in the dirt behind her.
She was so close. Finally.
Her vision blurred, white and hot. She rubbed her eyes and her hand came away wet. Red. The looming building and the trees that framed it, what was left of them, slid greasily out of her field of vision. Rita hit the ground, hard, face-first. Things slithered on the edge of her sightlines. The Omega still pulsed wildly in her head.
There were shouts, something holding her hand back from pulling her sidearm, then the sweet cool blank of oblivion.
Carter got bounced from the research labs, but he managed to get one of his prototypes out. They tested it every way they could, but there was nothing left. All that remained for Rita was the scar on her forehead, another on her thigh, and the stink of black smoke in the back of her throat.
Somewhere on either side of the Atlantic, someone got the bright idea that what the war effort really needed was a mascot. Someone slick and tough, but easy on the eyes. Rita, obviously, the full metal bitch all the boys and girls would still want to fuck. Who wouldn't want to race headlong into battle if it meant seeing the Angel of Verdun avenging alongside you? If it meant getting into her good graces, if fate allowed you both to survive to the end of the day?
She did what they wanted. Posed for the pictures, gave a few fumbling speeches. Blinked owlishly into hot studio lights, offered a ritual "hi, mom" into the camera while the newsreader fumbled into the next segue and her press liaison beamed in the wings.
She would do whatever they wanted, as long as they sent her back in again.
The American found her there. Walked right in like he belonged. Hips and shoulders easy, cover in hand, an overwhelmed expression on his face. Rita felt a crackle in the air, a burn in her eyes and lungs. Felt the floor hum beneath her feet. She jumped up, already demanding.
"I'm Bill Cage," he told her, slick and spit-shined like she hadn't seen in months. He held out a hand, forestalling the salute she wasn't going to offer.
He waited, patient, still grinning. His eyes were wet, bright in the lights. The hum grew stronger, vibrating up her legs and spine, pushing the breath from her lungs. She shook his hand.
"Thank you for your service," he said. "All of your service. I— We couldn't have done it without you."
There was no need to ask why, or how. She could smell it on him, a faint whiff of ozone and char, of power that could still burn them both alive.
Rita never told her brother about the dream she had. The one dream, the one that woke her up at night, dizzy and sick and scared to death. About finding him down long white hallways, with his veins visible through his papery skin, cold under her hand. How he opened his eyes and smiled, the same smile he gave her the day she accidentally stole the Alpha's power. The same smile Cage was giving her now, like he would burst with love and pride if she didn't help him find some outlet for it. If she didn't keep holding out her hand, if she didn't smile, if she didn't let him in to where he wanted to be.
Her chest ached. It had been so long. She'd only barely let Hendricks in, and that after what must have been years. This wasn't the same. It couldn't be.
Couldn't have done it without her. She had done it alone, hadn't she? With nothing to show at the end of the day but whatever she had already given this American, who stank of everything she wanted back.
"No," she agreed. "You couldn't have."