Cage and Rita had some time to kill this loop.
Last loop, Rita had shot him in the head on the roof of the UDF, where they’d tried to escape with the transponder, just as Brigham’s guards had caught up with them. Before that, she had shot him in the stairwell, in the courtyard, in the parking garage, even in the ground floor women’s room, where they’d had an, in retrospect, longshot hope that they could slip out a window before the guards found them.
Trying to convince General Brigham to let them walk away with the transponder seemed to be a dead end. So Cage’s idea, this time, when he found her, was to give up on trying to convince Brigham and instead steal it from his office the day of the invasion. General Brigham, along with most of UDF, wouldn’t be there, opting to move somewhere closer to the front lines to boost morale. Cage had watched him open the safe combination enough times that he thought he could do it himself.
Rita’d nodded, unfazed and unflagging as a machine. “We should spend today training, in that case.”
“You’ve already trained me,” he said.
“Then maybe you’ll give me a challenge.”
He scoffed, but during one sparring match, near the end of the day, he fought her to a draw for the first time. She put her claymore at her side, and nodded with approval. “Again.”
“I only learned all that because of you,” he said, feeling vaguely embarrassed.
“Again,” she said, an insistent edge in her voice.
At a different time, as a different kind of man, he would have felt cocky, would have scanned her eyes for signs of interest, signs that this was what she wanted in a man. Instead, he couldn’t stop thinking of how each move he’d mastered, each millisecond of speed he’d gained on the beach, had come with the price of another death for her. It didn’t feel worth it, even though he knew she would have disagreed.
After training, they left the base, walked the streets of London for a few hours, had curry at an all-night place, then slept a few hours in a hostel not far from UDF headquarters. He rarely slept or ate anymore these days, and he’d forgotten how good it felt.
They talked a little, in the early morning hours, trying not to listen to the sounds of drunken sex next door. Last chance sex was popular these days. On the other side of their room, a man was crying and moaning to himself. That was popular too these days. Rita told him something new about herself: where she was when she heard the news about the meteorites in Germany. Somehow, they’d never talked about it before, even though these days it was as compulsory a piece of getting-to-know-you chit-chat as asking someone what they did for a living. “Where were you when you heard the news?”
Rita told him she’d been in Germany at the time, though nowhere near any of the meteorite crash sites. She’d been backcountry hiking for a week in the Alps, near the Swiss border. She was hiking out when an older man in a wide-brimmed hat and knee socks had come up the trail. He was the first person she’d seen in two days. “Have you heard the news?” he asked, breathlessly, in English. A fellow Briton. She’d been in Germany at the time of the invasion, and she heard the news two days late, from an Englishman. What were the chances? She had laughed when he’d told her, not knowing what else to do.
Cage tucked the story away in his mind, like he’d tucked away every scrap of herself that she’d ever chosen to show him. Not to prove himself to her anymore, he’d already learned enough for that, just to have it, to know her better.
Their hostel room had an old wooden bunk bed, and she took the top bunk. They had only slept this close together a few times before. Once they had shared a bed, but that had only been because there was no choice. There was a choice tonight, so they slept apart. He closed his eyes, tried not to stare at the back of the mattress above him, and the night went by too fast. He realized, somehow, in just those few times, he’d come to have trouble falling asleep until her heard her breathing smooth out. He only slept when she slept, these days.
Getting into the UDF headquarters the day of the invasion was easier than it had ever been before. They made it through the halls without being seen, and all seemed to be going well as they slipped into Brigham’s office and Cage punched in the combination on the safe. As soon as he opened the safe, though, an alarm blared throughout the office. And like that, they were trapped in the office with nowhere to run.
“They set an additional alarm when he’s gone,” he shouted over the siren.
“I gathered,” she shouted back.
Rita was business-like in pulling out her gun, but this time, some overeager new recruit running into the office with his pistol drawn saw her first. A soldier as unseasoned and overeager as him should have been on the front lines today, and maybe he wished he was, because he shot wildly. It was sheer bad luck that he didn’t hit either of them, but he did somehow manage to shoot the gun out of Rita’s hand. If he’d been trying to do it, Cage guessed the kid would have never managed. By that time, other, better soldiers were rushing in with tasers. Rita had barely had time to draw her knife from her ankle holster when one guard tackled her.
Cage knew he didn’t have the luxury of throwing himself at the guard in fury, that Rita herself would have kicked his ass for not scrambling for the knife, so he dove to the floor.
His hand closed over the hilt when one of the guards put a foot over his hand. To his left, he watched the guard holding Rita pull out his taser and shoot the two small darts into her skin. He fought furiously, anger and a deeper kind of fear overwhelming him.
The last thing he thought, before he felt a current of electricity jolt through him, was that he didn’t know what would happen next. Rita had always been able to shoot him before this happened.
When he came to, he knew at once he hadn’t woken up where he was supposed to be. He was sitting inside, in a moving vehicle, the hum of an engine around him, hard metal bench under him, and handcuffs—well. There were still handcuffs.
He opened his eyes to the white interior of a military transport van.
He hated waking up anywhere other than at the beginning of the day—the disorientation it caused him, that initial horrible question of how long he’d slept. Usually, he’d gotten to the point where he could tell, just by the level of light in the sky. In the van, the only light came from a fluorescent overhead light, and a rear window covered in a heavy white grate: reinforced metal perforated with a grid of small holes, just enough to dimly see through. He could make out a road, military vehicles traveling behind them, and trees and the occasional building disappearing behind them. Nothing that would indicate where they were.
Rita was across from him. Like him, her hands were chained to the bench in front of her, between her legs. Like him, her weapons, boots, jacket, and belt were all gone. She was slumped against the seat, head on her chest.
If he stretched out his leg as far as he could, he could touch her knee with his toe. She blinked at him. For a brief moment, she didn’t seem to recognize him, but she evidently recognized the inside of the van. She tensed up, her eyes flitting around the vehicle, and she pulled against the chains. For a moment he saw something he didn’t think he’d ever seen her eyes before as they raked over the interior of the van--panic.
“Not again.” She said it so softly under her breath he wasn’t even sure he’d heard her at first.
Her eyes focused on Cage, and she snapped out of her disorientation instantly. She sat up straight. “How long have I been out?”
“I don't know. I just woke up too.” He looked out the window. “Seems like it’s still early in the day.”
She looked out the grating, nodding at the buildings they passed with apparent recognition. “We’re being taken to military detention. They must not know the invasion’s going to fail yet. I don’t think they’d bother otherwise.”
He had scarcely had time to nod at that when they heard an air siren scream through the air at that moment. The van slammed to a halt. Sitting sideways in the van, their inertia threw them both forward in the van, to their sides.
They could feel heavy tremors through the van’s floor, like they were coming up the wheels from the ground itself.
Cage squinted through the grate, and felt a sense of calm recognition settle over him as saw the vehicles behind him parting like the sea, vehicles thrown in the air as the familiar phalanges of the mimics whipped down the highway, churning up people and vehicles and even asphalt alike in their path.
“Let’s hope it kills us,” she said, with that pragmatic composure that she’d been a master of as long as he’d known her. “But I’m not taking any chances.” She bent her head down till it was almost to her knees and pulled a couple of bobby pins out of her hair. He hadn’t even realized she kept bobby pins in her hair until this moment, and somehow it fascinated him, the way he was fascinated anew every time she knew the way around some new situation he hadn’t encountered yet. She went to work on the locks on her cuffs, holding one pin still in the lock and moving the other beside it with a watchmaker’s precision.
“You know how to pick locks?” he asked.
“You haven’t learned? I thought you woke up every day in handcuffs.”
“I always got out of them some other way. Should I learn?”
“Let’s focus on this day,” she said.
Their driver evidently saw the mimics coming too, and was far more determined to not be eaten by them. The driver jerked their wheel to the right and gunned it, pulling on to the medium. The van thumped along, over bushes and slamming aside smaller cars that were abandoned on the medium. He saw with a queasy kind of relief that this had the effect of drawing the mimics’ attention, and several broke out of formation to bolt after them. He watched as they got closer, helpless to do anything else.
“They’re coming for us,” he said. He heard the cuffs click, and saw Rita rise. And then something struck them from the right, and the world turned on its side. Both of them were thrown toward Rita’s side as the vehicle tilted, then toppled. Rita slammed against the wall--now the floor.
With his hands still trapped, chained to the bench on the wall that was now the ceiling, Cage was pitched forward out of his seat in a somersault, face and legs hitting everything as he flipped head-over-heels. His arms were jerked over his head in an audible snap as the cuffs arrested his fall, the whole weight of his body slamming onto his wrists.
“I think I dislocated my shoulders,” he said, then blacked out. He came to to Rita smacking his face, and tried to move his arms. “Yeah. Oh yeah, definitely dislocated, it’s bad.”
“We’ve got a bigger problem. The guards are dead. And I wouldn’t hold out hope for anyone else coming for us. We’re on our own in here.”
He tried to keep up. “Are you sure they’re dead?”
“I heard them being torn apart by the mimics, so I’d say yes.”
The overhead light had flickered and gone out, and the only light came through the grating. She hadn’t been as badly injured as him, but she had still taken a blow to her face that ran from her forehead to her jaw. It was strange, he though--the number of times she had died at the hands of the mimics, her face was often usually unscathed, which just twisted his guts more, gave him that split second of hope that maybe she could survive, that he could still save her. Now, her face looked banged to hell and back by a car crash, but she was on her feet, lifting the bobby pin to his handcuffs.
“I’ll just start over,” he babbled, still feeling woozy. “This was a bad idea. We won’t try stealing the transponder the day of the invasion again.”
She looked at him, and said, slowly, “Do you understand, Cage? It’s going to be hard to kill you.”
For a moment, he was so dazed by the blow to his head he really believed she was making some kind of confession of fondness, and then his brain caught up. No weapons. No belts. No shoes. He was so used to her killing him effortlessly, with the pull of a trigger, that he hadn’t thought until right now what it meant that they were trapped in the back of a high security containment vehicle.
“Can you get me down?” He winced in pain. He was used to pain by now, oh God, was he, but less used to having his body broken as badly as this and then lingering in pain, with no obvious means of death at hand.
She looked at him appraisingly, and nodded. “Yeah, it’ll be easier to have you on your back.”
She had to press up against him to work, and he felt the heat of her, the steel and steadiness in her even while injured, as she reached up to his hands and began to work on the locks. He was shaking, but she wasn’t. He didn’t dare ask what happened to her that had necessitated her knowing how to pick locks. Eventually, she got both cuffs open, and he fell heavily on his knees. He looked up at her. He was shaking badly, his whole body hurting—arms unable to move without agony--
“Have I ever done this to you before? With my bare hands?” she asked.
He shook his head, flinching in pain.
“It’s going to hurt a lot more than a gunshot to the head.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. There was a haunted look in her eyes. “I never learned to snap a man’s neck with my hands, so this is going to go slow.”
He tried not to shake as she curled her fingers around his neck. It was the first time he could remember that she had ever put her hands on his neck, he had always wanted her to touch him so intimately—he felt a kind of panic rising up in him. He had died so many ways, but he wasn’t ready to die like this, not just yet. She stretched her fingers across his trachea, flexed her powerful fingers, and he had no doubt she could crush it, but when he looked in her face, he didn’t see the cold resolve he expected. He saw the same barely contained panic he’d seen rise in her when she’d first woke in the van. It was that look that broke his resolve.
“Wait—wait. Can I have a minute? Just a minute?”
That would have been her normal cue to blow his brains out. He could see even now that her trigger finger was twitching, like some kind of Pavlovian response. But this was different. She nodded, looking suddenly very tired. “You can have ten. As counted by me. That’s it.”
“Sounds like a deal.”
She sat down on the floor—the wall—of the van, beside him. His body hurt all over, and he decided it was best if he didn’t move.
“I’ll make sure one of us knows how to snap my neck before we try this again,” he said, trying to smile.
She nodded, looking contemplative. “I think it’s more important that you learn to do it to yourself. I might not always be there for you.” That same distant look in her eyes. “If you ever have to do this alone, you can puncture your carotid artery with your fingers. The trick is making a big enough laceration to ensure you bleed out. It’s not easy, but it can be done. It takes discipline. Your body will be working against you every step of the way.”
He remembered what she had told him, about prison and insane asylums with padded walls. He had never stopped to ask himself how she reset those days. He felt a knot settle in his stomach.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. I’m sorry you went through all this alone, with no explanation and no guide. “You… you want to talk about what it was like?”
She shook her head. “Not much to say. I was only stuck without weapons three times, and I had to do it to myself twice.”
“And the third time?”
“The third time, I was with someone who would obey any order I gave him.” She wrapped her arms around herself, like she was suddenly cold.
She stared at him. This time, she didn’t look surprised or angry he knew that name. “Hendricks,” she said. She looked down at her hands, and then, to his astonishment, she put her hand on his knee, gripped it hard, like she almost hadn’t noticed she was gripping his knee rather than her own. “It fucks you up for a while, being killed that way by someone you know, worse that doing it to yourself. Killing that way, too.”
He couldn’t remember her ever talking so bluntly about the trauma she’d experienced during her loops. About the trauma killing him might cause her too, which he’d never thought about even once, come to think of it. “We can take as much time as you need,” he said.
“Ten minutes. Now seven minutes.”
She looked worn down, shadows deepening across her face. She leaned into him, and put an awkward arm around him. He swallowed. It had been so long since he’d been touched by anyone, and he wasn’t prepared for how much it would affect him, to feel her touch him now. He leaned forward, letting himself brush up against her. It didn’t even matter that his broken body was in agony, even—especially—the parts that she touched. Blocking the pain out, ignoring it by biting his tongue, he leaned his head on her shoulder.
They didn’t speak for a long time. Her body was hard, all sinew and winnowed muscles, and he felt her strength, but he also felt that trembling ache in her, like she was held together by scar tissue and sheer force of will.
Cage used to—well. He used to enjoy a lot more friendly touch than he has lately. Now it’d been nothing but soldiers punching him in the face, and soldiers grabbing him by the collar, and soldiers reaching for his hand as they bled out—and Rita, always Rita. Fighting him. Training him. Helping him up if he was uninjured. Shooting him in the head if he wasn’t.
Rita held him stiffly, but she seemed to relax into the touch with time. She was tense, and he realizes with a pang that she wasn’t comfortable, doing this, touching him like this. She barely knew him. She was doing it—because she believed, genuinely, that it would help the mission, help him get back in the game sooner, the next loop through. Because she wished someone had been there to do it for her.
He thought again about Rita, dying alone, in prep for the dissection table, in prison, in a mental asylum. None of that, by her count, fucked her up as much as the time she’d died at Hendricks’s hands. No one should have been asked to do the things she’d been asked to, and she did them all without a guide.
Her hand drifted up to his hair, and she ran her fingers through it, like she was trying to steady him, or herself. He ached to hold her. If he hadn’t been so injured, that he could have wrapped an arm around her. But he felt in some vague sense that this too was right—that she wouldn’t have relaxed enough to touch him the way she was now, if she hadn’t had this level of control, if she couldn’t be sure that he wouldn’t try to take more than she was willing to give.
And you? He wanted to ask. What will happen to you, after I’m dead and you’re still here, dying in a transport vehicle with no one coming to rescue you? He had sometimes wondered what became of Rita, each loop’s different Rita, after he died. Did she still live out the rest of the day in some form, live out an entire life, dealing with the consequences of murdering a private in full view of others, after he went back to start the day over in a different timeline? He had no idea, this kind of time travel sci-fi multiverse shit twisted his brain into knots. But he knew her well enough to guess that the possibility had occurred to her, and she was facing it head on.
“Thank you,” he said. “I, uh, don’t thank you often enough, for killing me.”
He could feel a small smile flex against his forehead, then vanish. “Believe me, you’re not going to want to thank me this time.”
He nodded, feeling contemplative. He tried to memorize the feeling of her hand on his knee, his head on her shoulder. He doubted they’d ever do this again. But he was grateful just for this, to hold this memory tight and carry it forward with him.
"One minute.” Her voice sounded strained. She seemed to be collecting her strength. Sometimes the longing flared up, so deep and powerful, for her to remember. For him to wake up the next day and when he found her, for her to look across the training floor at him with something like recognition, anything other than annoyance at being rudely interrupted by a stranger. He’d have to settle for knowing how gentle her touch could be when she wanted it to be, how warm her skin was through their clothes.
She seemed to be on the same wavelength as him in some vague way. She said, “You tell me about how you died when you wake up, and I’ll understand.”
He wasn’t sure he wanted to do that—give her one more piece of information about a day she had no memory of to process, one more thing to weigh her down—but he appreciated it. “If you’re ready, you should do it now. Before I chicken out.”
“It’ll go easier if you lie to down,” she said.
She helped him lie back, his arms dragging along behind him like dead weight. The adrenaline of his fall was starting to wear off, and pain rolling over him in waves. He swallowed, tried to muster some kind of dignity in his last moments, then gave it up. She kneeled over him and wrapped her hands around his neck. This time, there was no mistaking the touch for a caress. Her hands were back to being just another weapon she used without hesitation. He knew it was a kindness, the only kindness left that she could offer him now--not flinching, not hesitating.
He felt panic rising up in him. He clung to the memory of her comforting him like it was something he could put between his teeth, a memory he could cling to to keep the terror rising in him at bay. He’d been killed by her so many times, but this was different, the intimacy hurt in a way the gunshots never had.
Her hands tightened and he struggle to draw breath. His body wanted to stay alive, even if he didn't. He tried squeezing his eyes closed, but that made it worse. He opened his eyes and looked up at her, and she held his gaze, patiently, sadly. Like she knew what he was going through, because she did. He thought of Rita alone in a padded room, digging her fingers into her own neck, hitting her own forehead against the concrete floor of a detention center. By comparison, this was a kindness, even if it didn’t feel like it to her. He wished he could have been there for her in those days.
Cage began to feel light-headed. He forced himself to hold her gaze, to not beg, to not struggle any more than what the animal part of his body couldn’t resist struggling against. She was looking at him with pity, and he tried to summon something other than fear and pain in his gaze, to signal that it was okay. It probably didn't look like he was okay. He didn’t know how he was looking at her, but he knew she was the last thing he saw when his vision dimmed around the edges, and faded altogether.
He woke up. Duffle bags beneath him, grey sky and a screaming lieutenant above him. He touched his neck, where her hands had been. He knew it was absurd, but he still felt them. He scrambled to his feet, ignored the shouts and let his uniform be shoved into his arms, which were still chained but uninjured, no throb of pain to be found there. He felt new, as he always did when he woke up. Or almost new, this time. It wasn’t possible, but he felt the warmth of her hands on his neck all that way to the barracks, her fingerprints warm across reborn skin that had never felt her touch at all.