They have done everything. They have killed people. They have burned labs. Time has been subtly changed over and over. And every new cycle sees the Kalavirus released one way or the other. The Witness always tears time apart, and good people always die. Nothing has worked.
“I am so tired,” Cassie whispers. She is lying in Cole’s arms on a small bed at the compound. Yet another mission has gone by. Another crisis averted, and another step that doesn’t seem to take them closer to the end.
Cole sighs. “I know. So am I.” He absentmindedly strokes her hair.
They don’t have much anymore, but they still have each other. Once Cassie was rescued from Titan they felt that there was no reason for them to stay apart anymore. The memories of 1959 where too strong to bury for both of them. But their child, oh their child. They tried so hard to save him. Loop after loop they tried, but he was always taken from them. And in turn, he took time from everyone else.
Cole knows that there should still be time. That there should be a Cassie old enough to have a grey streak in her hair and who can work on a cure for years. He knows that there should still come a point where they send her back. Send her back to wait, and to start the cycle anew. He knows that it will be the start of everything again, but the end for her. And he does not want to send her back. Not yet.
“Do you remember when you tried to kill Jones and time wouldn’t let you?”
“That feels like ages ago… Time hasn’t let us do many things since then. I don’t think it’s on our side after all.” Cassie pulls the blanket tighter around them.
“Do you remember what Jennifer told us? What got us out?”
“That we should do something by doing nothing?” Cassie is looking at him with a slight puzzled look on her face.
“Yeah. What if that is the whole point? If it was the way out then, maybe it’s the way out now.” Cole starts to sit up in the bed. His thoughts are churning. There might be a way out after all. But it might tear them both apart.
The CDC thinks that Dr Cassandra Railly has been with them two years, as the head of the fight against M5-10 and as their face to the world. That is indeed true, but no one seems to have noticed the difference between the Cassandra Railly that they hired in 2015 and the one desperately holding on to the Baltimore offices in 2017. How could they even imagine that the woman they met in 2015 was sent from the future, and went back after a year and a half, only to be replaced by an older and battle worn version of the same woman from even further ahead. It would be a preposterous thought, and yet it is all true.
Cassie remembers so much. She has seen so much. She has tried so much. She has lost so very much. When she finally lost Cole to a new mutation of the virus she lost hope in the original mission. There was no stopping the plague. But maybe, just maybe she could find a cure. Maybe in this cycle she could be successful. So she went back to 2017. She knew exactly when to splinter to make her own absence minimal. And then she worked. And she saw the world crumble.
She remembers a night in 2047 when Cole was still healthy, and they talked about a different way to end everything. And they had tried. He had splintered and he had come back. And nothing had changed. He said it couldn’t be done.
She remembers how he told her about her death. He kept the details a secret from her for so long, but in the end he wanted her to know. He wanted her to know that she wouldn’t be alone. That he’d hold her one last time. That he’d hold her for the first time.
She is ready.
“I’m sorry I have to do this.”
They are standing in the splinter chamber. Their foreheads are resting against each other, and for once Cole is reluctant to get in the chair.
“I know.” Cassie says stroking his face. “But we have to try.”
She breaks away and steps back. The distance between them finally pushes Cole towards the chair. He lies down and turns to face her.
“See you soon.”
As the blue light envelopes him, Cassie can’t help tears from falling.
The cycle has to continue. She knows this. There is no way out. Not now. Maybe if they start over one more time they will have a chance. Maybe. She will record the message, and she will wait for a younger Cole to find his way to her from Chechnya. And her cycle will end. She is so tired.
She finds the old tape recorder she once bought for this exact purpose. The apocalypse isn’t kind on modern electronics, and this needs to last. She presses the the red record button.
“My name is Dr Cassandra Ra-”. A cough tears through her body and she has to stop the recording. She doesn’t have the plague. They always said she didn’t have the antibodies. That she wasn’t immune. Yet she never got sick. She lived in their world for so long, and in the end it was Cole who was taken from her. Not the other way around. No, this is different. This is time collecting its dues. You can’t exist outside of time forever. Eventually it will take you back.
The lights flicker in the laboratory and with sirens wailing outside Cassie just assumes it’s another power glitch. Nothing works in the apocalypse. It is to be expected. She returns to the beginning of the tape. This has to be done right.
This isn’t right. She didn’t place the call to the Chechen contingent yet. He shouldn’t be here.
She turns around.
“James?” This isn’t the James Cole that left for Chechnya on a mission of hope. This is a James Cole who has suffered and loved and spent years fighting by her side. This is the James Cole that she lost.
“Cassie…” his voice is soft and his eyes full of regret. “I have given up trying to understand causality and the cycles of time. You might not know this. You might not have the memory I have. But I just left you in 2047, on a mission I hope will be our last.”
“I do. I remember. But you said it didn’t work. We tried. We always try…”
“Then let’s try again.” He takes her hand. They fit so well together still, even if she has only had memories of his hand in hers for months. The ghost of an embrace lingering through dark nights.
“Everything depends on this message,” he continues. “If you never record it, the cycle never has to repeat.”
“I know. It all comes down to us, together.” Cassie sees something flicker across his face. “They might have thought I was your only hope of stopping the plague, but in the end we made a child who tore apart the universe. We are the cause of this Cole, not the message.”
She has lost so much. But she has made her peace. Looking into his eyes she realises that when he said that it couldn’t be done, he meant that he couldn’t do it.
“We can never meet. And this, this is the easiest way to do it. If I don’t ask for you, you won’t find me and the cycle will be broken.”
“Will time let us?”
“I think all we can do is wait.”
And so they wait. They are sitting on the floor in one of the small labs. This section of the Baltimore CDC is not used anymore. They abandoned the west wing two weeks earlier when some of the survivors broke through. But Cassie has come here a lot since then. It’s somewhere she can be alone. Somewhere she can prepare for the end. And now, it is where she will meet it.
Cole is looking around at the broken equipment they left behind. At notes stuck to boards, and discarded printouts of charts.
“I didn’t ask you the first time, but why are you doing this? Looking for the cure. You know there is none…”
She lets her eyes fall to his hands. Hands that are calloused from a hard life filled with guns and violence. Hands that she knows the touch of so well. Her voice drops to a barely audible whisper.
She doesn’t have to say more. He understands and pulls her towards him.
They wait. The tape recorder stands abandoned on one of the work tables. She won’t touch it again, but she takes her cellphone from a pocket in her lab coat. At least the cell towers are still functional.
“I should call Chechnya. If you are there…”
“Then we have failed and the cycle must be maintained. Do it.”
It’s a quick phonecall. They all know who she is. Her authority carries world wide now. In almost any other situations she’d be proud of her accomplishments. Now she just feels sad.
They wait. Darkness has long since fallen and from outside they can hear the muffled sounds of helicopters and people filled with fear and rage.
There has been no word from Chechnya. No man has been rescued from the ruins of a mountain villa. No man has pushed through a mob of quarantined Chechen villagers. James Cole has not been found.
“I think we did it.”
“We changed time. Again.” Cassie takes a shaky breath and coughs.
“It’s okay. You know I die today. I know. It’s okay.” She tries to smile at him.
“But we changed…”
“No. Not this. This cycle still has to end.”
She is weak now and Cole has to hold her up. He gently kisses her while brushing loose strands of hair from her face.
“Please, can you get me some of the water from over…” She coughs again.
Cole eases out from under her, making sure the wall supports her instead.
As he kneels down in front of her again something starts to change. They both feel it. But the lights don’t flicker as they used to, and they don’t feel the familiar tug in the chest.
Many years ago, and only two, she thought she’d never see him again. That he was going to his death and she’d be there for it. She remembers.
“We’ll meet someday again Cassie. In a better world. Maybe the Keys…” He is fading. His voice growing ever fainter.
“I’ll see you soon.” His smile is sad.
She knows he won’t. They won’t.
She opens her eyes. The January sun is pale but warm through her bedroom window, and she can hear the sound of morning traffic outside. She can hear life.
Today is the day Dr Cassandra Railly will be the guest of honour at the Symposium on Infectious Disease Management. She will stand tall and she will tell them to be prepared. She will make her colleagues see what the world needs. And then she will get in her car. Her drive home will be uneventful and she will wait for her man to return from his business trip. She will leave him of course, but she will say it’s because of their lives being too hectic. He won’t understand the truth. No one ever will. Her life will never feel complete again, but she will live. And she will help the world once more.
And she will not look for a boy named James Cole.