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Kensie opened his eyes. They were caked with yellow gunk, and his eyelashes stuck together. A strong hand gripped the back of his neck, lifting him up.

“Drink,” a voice said.

Kensie licked his dry lips and then drank from the offered cup, pale green and plastic. The liquid tasted weird, and he grimaced as it coated his mouth.

“It’s got your vitamins.”

Kensie turned toward the voice. He was groggy, his brain struggling to process the world around him. The voice belonged to a woman. She released his neck and sat down in a chair next to his cot. She was thin but muscled in the wiry way of long-distance runners.

“Who are you?” he croaked. “Where am I?”

She shook her head. “It will come back to you. Just give it a few minutes. Those vites will clear your head.”

Indeed, the “vitamins” seemed to be doing their work. Kensie found he could keep his eyes open without as much effort, his vision was clearing, his arms and legs felt less heavy. He rubbed the gunk from his eyes with his finger, scraping it out of his tear ducts and pulling at his eyelashes. “How did you know where to find me?” he asked. His head had cleared a bit, true, but the only thing that had “come back to him” was a memory of being pinned down—not by gun fire, exactly, but by some sort of pulse weapon, or laser. A dream? Left with nowhere else to run, he’d worked his way deep into a cave.

The woman smiled, but there was no humor in it. “Ah, Kenz. I always know where to find you, don’t I?” She rubbed his chest, where his chip was implanted into his sternum.

He drew a deep breath when she said that, pulling in memories along with air. He breathed. He remembered. “Yes, Dakota. Indeed you do.”

There were memories, but they were sketchy, a storyboard in his mind rather than a finished film. Most clearly, he remembered the first time Dakota pulled him out. He’d been in an old broke-down Osprey, doing security on rescues in Syria. They’d pulled two men out of the shit and were headed back to base when they were hit with a shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenade. Before he had time to process that they were spiraling toward the ground, Dakota had appeared before him, popping into the empty space in front of him like she’d been drawn there by an animator. One frame was empty, and in the next, there she was.

She’d grabbed him, her skinny hand clasping his wrist harder than he imagined possible, and in the next frame, they were both gone. The helicopter, he would later learn, crashed into the ground and killed everyone, including, it was presumed by the Army, Corporal Kensie J. Lansing.

“Catch me up,” Kensie said. He took Dakota’s hand in his own, and she squeezed. “How long has it been?”

Kensie had been pulled forward five times—or maybe six, he couldn’t process it just then—and it was never right away. Dakota knew where he was, that was true. The way she’d found him in the first place was because he had been part of an experimental group, implanted with a tracking chip, telling the army his precise location. Going through old—very old—computer records, someone had discovered the list, and knew the exact location of his death. Since he was about to die, he wouldn’t be missed if he were pulled forward to fight in another war, one in desperate need of soldiers.

But the process, the equipment, required two things that were sometimes in very short supply—power, and a safe place.

Dakota stared at the wall. Kensie squeezed her hand again. “How long has it been? What’s happened?” What he meant to ask was, who have we lost? But he couldn’t bring himself to ask that. Dakota, he knew, lived in a state of nearly constant despair. The moments when he was brought back, but not yet out fighting, were a brief respite for her.

“Two years,” she said, shrugging one shoulder. Her bottom lip trembled.

“Come here,” he said, and pulled her toward him. He made space for her on the tiny cot, her slender body curving into his. She buried her face into the crook of his neck and sobbed quietly. “I’m sorry, Dakota,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

He was sorry that he had died, again. It was a habit he couldn’t seem to shake. He was sorry that she’d had to mourn him for two years, never knowing if they’d gather enough crystals, the power source that enabled them to turn on the machine, and go back to grab him from the cave. He was sorry for whatever horrors she had lived through the last two years, while he was—where, exactly? He hadn’t quite figured that one out yet.

After a while she was still. He looked down and she was looking up, and he kissed her. Her soft lips on his were almost too much. His heart ached in his chest and his pulse raced. Tears sprang from his gunked-up tear ducts. And deep within him there was a feeling he knew all too well—déjà vu on steroids. Ever since that first time, he had existed in an unshakable haze of the surreal, like a dream. The only thing that ever felt truly real, in fact, was when he was running toward something he was supposed to kill, or running away from something trying to kill him.

Later, when he was able, they left the room. They were in an underground bunker, a Cold War era facility that the group favored for its reliable stability. “Phoenix,” she said, as they walked. “He’s gone. A year ago.”

Kensie nodded. He wanted to collapse on the cold tiles, or go back to his bunk, or make his way to the grave he rightly deserved. But he didn’t want to add to Dakota’s grief, and he felt numb enough to fake it.

They came to a partially open door. Kensie smelled the Milk even before they pushed the door open and went in.

It was a male, deceased. Though it was hard to tell, being laid out on a table, Kensie thought he was tall for his species, and that was saying something. Milks—named for their pale, nearly translucent, white skin, generally stood over seven feet tall. They were gangly, with knobby limbs like albino stalks of bamboo. They wore pale steel armor that sometimes seemed to glow in the right light, and they were vicious soldiers, with deadly aim and no mercy that Kensie had ever seen.

This one’s legs hung off the table, folded at the knees. His chest was cracked open, revealing the glowing blue crystal within.

A man was poised over it, a blade in his bare, bloody hands. “Ah, Kensie.”

“Jax?” Kensie said. He hadn’t recognized the man at first. “You’ve… grown a beard.” Kensie didn’t want to say it, but Jax looked ten or fifteen years older. The beard he’d grown was pure white.

“Yes,” Jax said, with a smile. “I’m glad you’re back. I’m glad you’re okay. We needed some good news.”

Kensie’s stomach knotted. If they needed good news it meant that things were going badly. Of course, things rarely went any other way.

There was someone he didn’t know in the room, a young woman.

Jax gestured toward Kensie. “This is Corporal Lansing.”

“Kensie,” he corrected, and Jax laughed. The use of his surname and rank when he first arrived had caused him to be the butt of a lot of jokes, and marked him as an outsider.

“Juneau,” she said.

Jax cleared his throat. “As I was saying. The crystal isn’t natural to their species. It’s not something they’re born with. They are implanted, at some point of development.”

“How do you know?” Juneau asked.

Jax bent over and pointed with his knife. “See these marks here? Along the edge? And here? They don’t appear anywhere else in or on the aliens. It’s where the crystal was implanted.”

Juneau leaned over the wrenched-open chest cavity. “When are they implanted?”

“Sometime in adolescence, we think.” Jax met Kensie’s eye. This was new information.

“How do we know that?” Kensie asked. They had never before seen anything but full-grown soldiers. They were male and female, but they all seemed to be adults. There was some speculation as to whether the species even experienced a childhood phase of development.

“Come on,” Dakota said, when Jax hesitated. They left the room behind as Jax began to pry out the crystal, and walked in silence for a few moments.

“How long did it take?” Kensie asked. “In the beginning?”

Dakota looked at him, her eyebrows raised.

“Maybe I knew, before. Maybe I’ve forgotten. But how long did it take to figure out that the crystals could power the machine?” He stopped. “Hell, how long did it take to figure out that the machine could be used to go back in time?”

“I wasn’t there,” Dakota said, her voice deliberately calm. She smiled at him. “You ask the same questions every time, you know. Every time you come back, your brain starts tossing around the same questions, and you never remember the answers.”

“I remember everything else,” he said, petulant.

“And how would you know that?”

He sighed. “Humor me, okay?”

She shrugged. “I wasn’t born yet. It was before my time. Not long after the Milks first arrived. When there were still a lot of humans, a lot of people who knew a lot about technology. I think the machine was stolen about five years after invasion. It was, I don’t know, twenty years before we figured it out. Well, twenty years before we figured out what the aliens were doing with it and what we could do with it instead.”

Kensie remembered, now that she’d said it, but he didn’t think he’d ever understand. The machine was from an alien’s ship, and with it they traveled through space with no more effort than Kensie’s Osprey had traveled through the air. Easier, since in space nobody shot RPGs at you. The humans—the earliest resistance—had figured out that the machine could bend space and time. And then later they found that with the right power source—buried within the chest of their oppressors—they could turn it on and use it to travel back in time.

There weren’t many like Kensie. The program had never taken off, and the list of soldiers they could capture in the moment before death—soldiers who wouldn’t be missed, who couldn’t cause a time paradox—was a short one. The resistance hadn’t dared do much more than take soldiers like Kensie, but he wondered what they may try, if things got much more dire.

Luckily, the blue crystals could also be used to power vehicles, keep the lights on, and charge the stolen alien weapons.

They walked toward the cafeteria, but Kensie wasn’t hungry. Seeing the Milk squashed what little appetite he had. “There was a raid,” Dakota said. “We raided one of their compounds. It was fortified, more heavily than anything else we’d seen from them.”

There was a lump in Kensie’s throat.

“There were juveniles in there. Families.”

Kensie didn’t need to ask what the soldiers had done. Milks had very nearly wiped out humanity altogether. A Milk soldier would no sooner spare a human child from his pulse weapon than he would spare a soldier as battle-hardened as Kensie.

“That’s how we know,” she said, nodding back to the room where the creature was being autopsied. “The juveniles didn’t have the crystals.”

Kensie stopped walking.

“Phoenix,” she said, but her voice caught.

“He went on the raid,” Kensie said.

Dakota nodded.

Phoenix hadn’t been born with that name. He’d been born, and had lived the first twenty-one years of his life—as Shane Williams. He had shorn his name, and his rank, much faster than Kensie had. He’d decided to call himself Phoenix, for all the obvious reasons.

“We can get him back,” Kensie said. “We’ll get him back.”

She shook her head and put her hand to her mouth. “He carved out his chip before he left. He didn’t want to come back.”

Kensie collapsed, then. His legs couldn’t support him and his vision blurred. He fell against the wall and sank to the floor. If Phoenix couldn’t carry on, how could he?

Dakota sat on the floor next to him, put his head in her lap and ran her fingers through his hair. “You have me, Kenz,” she said, stroking his face and answering his unspoken question. “And I will always know where you are.”

October 11, 2019 14:37

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