Speculative Science Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

Content Warning: Contains some strong language and talk of mental health. Non-graphic off-page violence discussed.

CHART NOTE, Scarlett McNeal:

Alias: Backpedal

Ability: Rewinds/relives events with full cognition and free will intact on command.

Status: Patient is enhanced, registered, and recently assigned as law enforcement resource with Amherst Corporation.

Duties: Patient uses ability to prevent death, injury, damage, and other liability concerns with regards to designated persons and properties.

Reason for Psychiatric Care: Patient exhibited elevated levels of irritability and rage for two weeks prior to experiencing an apparent psychotic break while on duty. Patient is temporarily relieved of duty and inhibited for medical leave.

Therapy Goals: Patient has requested transfer to a new department within Amherst and/or a dissolution of her non-compete agreement, both of which Amherst has denied. Patient has now requested voluntary neutralization.

Description of Care: Standard 6-week course of inpatient therapy mandated by Amherst Co. Board of Directors to confirm patient truly desires neutralization. Board of Directors strongly prefers patient to remain intact.

YOU CARE ABOUT your patients. Deep breath in, slow exhale out. You care. You do. You care about all your patients. Even the ones who aren't trying to make progress.

I recycle these and similar sentiments in my head like a mantra and focus on my breathing, trying to pin all of my consciousness to that thought. Mindfulness and breath control are the most effective forms of pain management there are, Regina. You only feel what you choose to feel.

That's what Morgan told me every day of my training, what I still tell myself during every single session with a patient dealing with intense emotional trauma. It's bullshit, of course, and I'm pretty sure she knew it was bullshit, but it's all I have to work with. Amherst Corporation doesn't have a vested interest in letting their empaths deaden our senses with so much as a Tylenol, because that would make us less productive. My job is to trace the jagged edges of the mind and soul of the person seated across the room from me, figure out what's broken, and repair it. It's more trade craftsmanship than caregiving. Cuts and bruises are to be expected.

But Scarlett is different from any of my other patients. I've heard about people like this—Ruminants, Morgan called them—but this is my first time dealing with one, and it is brutal. She isn't letting herself heal. Any emotional bones I manage to set in our sessions are shattered again the very next day. Just the thought of her name is enough to send pressure building at the base of my neck. When she walks in the room, I have to suppress the urge to vomit. It's difficult for me to remember she's a girl, not a torture device.

You care about this patient. You care about Scarlett. She has no idea how much pain she's causing me. She thinks I'm a blank, and I'm not able to tell her otherwise. Not because of Amherst, but because of my own personal ethics. She needs to focus on healing herself, not shielding me from pain.

Opening my eyes, I take her in. She's so young, just two months past twenty, with shaggy brown hair and wide gray eyes. It's hard to picture this young, innocent near-child pinning her work partner's hand to the Amherst cafeteria table with a fork, but that's the incident that landed her here.

My lapse in attention hasn't registered for her. She's giving me the same speech she does every session, almost verbatim, about how much she hates her life. While she talks, she swirls her index finger in a counterclockwise spiral in the air—the repetitive motion that activates her ability, when she doesn't have an inhibitor cuff clamped on her wrist.

"And I guess what I hate the most is Amherst. Almost everyone who works there is a jerk. 'Empowered workers empower humanity,' my ass. I'm a prisoner in my own body. Do you have any idea what that's like?"

We are nearing the end of this script. I remain silent through the diatribe, as always. It wouldn't be wise for me to answer these questions, so I'll pretend to think they're rhetorical.

Scarlett sighs and looks out the window. Protestors are gathering as the sun dips lower in the sky, as they do every night. Today, their signs are splattered with red paint in an effort to look like blood. Justice for Hanan. Amherst is the Damn Worst. Be Kind, Rewind. She winces at that last one. I rise and draw the shade down, hiding the crowd.

"Thanks," she murmurs.

"It's nothing," I say.

"They really hate me, don't they?"

"I didn't see anything about Scarlett McNeal on those signs," I say, trying to be diplomatic.

She rolls her eyes. "You and I both know who they're thinking about right now. They're wondering why I haven't undone the whole thing. Never mind the fact that I'm literally in prison right now."

"Inpatient therapy," I correct.

"Feels about the same from where I am." She pauses and looks up guiltily. "No offense. You're nice and all, but I didn't want to do this."

"None taken. It's not the first time someone has said that."

"God. I should have listened to my mom."

I perk up. Everything else she's said before, as if she's reading a script, but this mention of her mother is new. "Anything in particular you wish you'd listened to your mom about? Or just in general?"

Scarlett laughs, but her eyes remain flat and mirthless as she stares at the shade over the window, like she can still see the people gathered outside. Her finger continues to swirl along her thigh. "She told me to get muted before I was old enough to show up on the scans. Said my life would be a lot easier if I just knuckled down and did it."

I nodded. It was common enough advice, at least among the poorer population of the city. Maybe not at first, back when the scanners were new and the corporations were shiny novelties. Everyone had stars in their eyes back then about rebuilding society together, with grand aspirations to be the next Atomic Wonder or Binary Star. It was easy to be excited about corp life when you thought it was all about building a better future.

"Why didn't you take her advice?" The question slips out of me without permission, but I don't retract it. I really want to know the answer.

"I tried. A few times, actually. I could never bring myself to go through with it, though." With a click, the inhibitor cuff tightens around her wrist—too many attempts to access her ability within the last hour. She yelps and rubs the reddening skin, scowling at the device. "I don't suppose you have access to reset this thing?"

"Sorry," I said, genuinely meaning it. Inhibitors can only be removed or reset by Amherst correctional officers. "You may be able to convince your parole liaison to do you a favor after you leave here, though."

"No, I won't. That dude hates me." She slides a finger under the cuff in an attempt to loosen its grip. She gets as far as the first knuckle before the band clamps down even harder and rolls over her finger in waves until the digit is forced out completely. "Ugh!"

"It wouldn't get so tight if you didn't try to access your ability so frequently. Have you tried replacing the motion with something else? " I place a basket of fidget toys on the desk between us, stretchy bands and sheets of rubber that look like egg crates and metal spinners. "Many of my patients with a similar issue have found great success with these."

She drags her hand through the basket to take stock of what I have, then sighs. "I've tried all of these. The spinners help some when I'm awake, but there's nothing to help when I try to rewind in my sleep."

I blink, taken aback. She's never shared this with me before, this urge to access her gift while unconscious. It makes me wonder whether I've misjudged her completely. Maybe her rumination, the way she devours and regurgitates and re-processes her pain every single day, isn't born of willful obstinance. Is there a specific moment she's trying to return to, a particular mistake she's trying to fix, or is rewinding what anchors her to reality?

She offers me a small smile. "Thanks for asking, though. I appreciate it."

For the first time in our therapeutic relationship, the tension in my body releases and I feel my jaw relax, my shoulders drop, my tongue loosen itself from the roof of my mouth. We're still in session, but I'm not in pain. Sadness is still here, still flavors every aspect of this conversation, but there's something else now, something new. Affection, laced with a hint of gratitude.

I don't like it. I've grown to expect pain, and I have my ways of dealing with it. This spongy, vague lightness that could mean a dozen different things makes me nervous.

I clear my throat. "Can you tell me about the times you attempted neutralization, Scarlett? I'm interested to hear why you decided against it, if it's what you want now."

"I was thirteen the first time I signed up," she says, a faraway look in her eyes.

"Was this at the corp clinic?"

"No, no. This was before the free anon clinics got shut down. It was a tiny little place a block and a half from our apartment." She closes her eyes, as if she's trying to remember what it looked like. "It was a pair of sisters who ran it. They must have been in their eighties, but they were badass. I never learned their real names, but everyone called them Tita One and Tita Two." She falters and opens her eyes, and a cloud of fear mixed with anger floats to the surface. "I wonder what happened to them."

It's best not to ask these questions, which Scarlett well knows. I ignore the bait and wait for her to continue.

"Back then, they didn't make you give them a name. They didn't document anything. It was super easy. All you had to do was show up, sign a waiver, and they'd hand you a paper bag with the pills and instructions inside. I had no idea how good we had it." She chews on her fingernails and eyes the inhibitor cuff with renewed disdain.

"What changed your mind about going through with it?" I ask gently.

"Honestly? It felt wrong. I didn't want to erase who I was. I've been rewinding as long as I can remember and then some. I can't imagine not being able to do that." She glares at me, as if she's suddenly remembered that my job in all this is to convince her to remain intact. "I'm not ashamed of what I can do. I'm just tired of being made to do it."

I can already feel my handler, hiding away in the next room, prickling with energy at this brilliant opportunity. She's reviewing the CCTV footage with her earpiece in, hoping that I'll progress to the next scripted portion. She wants me to tell this girl, who is gorgeous and whip-smart and hilarious, to embrace her ability and strive to reach her fullest potential and, above all else, remain employed by Amherst Corporation.

But at this moment, when I look at Scarlett all I can see is myself at her age, hanging around street corners and tire shops, hoping to find someone who could help me figure out the source of my chronic pain that continued to baffle doctors. I see myself hungry and cold, shrugging on a too-big puffy jacket and counting the same three dirty dollar bills over and over again, wondering where my next meal will come from.

It may be the end of my career, but I won't be part of keeping Scarlett here. At least one of us deserves to be free.

She is still swirling her finger against the denim of her jeans, even though the inhibitor cuff is already so tight her fingertips are turning purple. For the first time, I look at her face mid-gesture and realize this is not absent-minded fidgeting. She looks determined, focusing on the inhibitor cuff with pure loathing in her eyes as she makes the motion more deliberately.

It hits me all at once. She's trying to break the cuff. She's trying to free herself. And dammit, I'm going to help her do it.

"When are you trying to go when you do that?" I ask, fighting to keep my voice nonchalant.

She flinches and ceases moving her hand, but to her credit doesn't waste time. "I'm going to save Hanan."

I glance at the shaded window and think about the protestors just outside, all those Justice for Hanan signs mounted to yardsticks and scraps of wood, all the chanting. The timeline adds up, too—her first day in treatment was only a week after Hanan's death. Of course that's what she's trying to do.

"Were you there that day?"

Pain flares through my chest a split second before she nods. "I saw everything."

"What happened?" I ask before I can stop myself. I know at this point my handler is pacing her closet-sized room, cursing my name, but there's nothing she can do about it right now.

Scarlett presses her lips together and shakes her head, incredulous. "We were trying to prevent a bank robbery. Me and Ellie—she's a precog, goes by Chronophobia—were waiting in the support van, monitoring everything. The muscles were already irritated because Ellie hadn't gotten a good look at the perpetrators in her vision, and they were on high alert, because clearly someone who's attempting a bank robbery in this day and age is probably going to be empowered.

"We were nearing the point where usually we'd pack up and leave, even though we hadn't spotted anything. That happens more than you'd expect. A lot of times when we're working off a precog tip, whatever is supposed to happen just...doesn’t, for whatever reason. They're dissuaded by the flashing lights and the buff guys in battle armor, or something completely unrelated to us changed the timeline, or the precog just messed up. Critical Mass was getting especially twitchy that day, since he'd powered up and didn't have anything to actually do.

"And then Hanan started walking down the sidewalk, towards the bank." Her voice wavers, and when I meet her gaze her eyes are welling. "It was so obvious that he was just a kid walking home from school. A blank. He was eating an apple, looking at his phone. But he'd appeared in Ellie's vision, and he was the first person she'd described that had showed up in our hours of staking out the place. He never saw Critical Mass coming." She swipes at her face, splotchy red cheeks covered with a sheen of tears.

She doesn't say anything further. She doesn't have to. We've all seen the footage at this point.

"I exited the van and started to rewind the minute it happened, but before I could, Gil—sorry, Commando—stopped me. I don't know why. All he would say is that they needed to get the facts straight first, figure out what happened. That didn't make a lot of sense to me because even if he had been the perp, we wouldn't have..." She shudders again. "But I did what he asked, because I figured they would do a quick investigation and then ask me to proceed with going back and stopping Critical Mass.

"But they never did. And every time I asked about it, they got angry with me. To the point that Commando had them put this thing on me." She raises her hand, points at the inhibitor cuff. "He said access to my ability was a privilege, not a right, and I needed to remember that Amherst has exclusive ownership over everything I do as Backpedal."

"That's when you..." I trail off, thinking back to the footage of the cafeteria. The fork stuck through Commando's hand, pinning him to the table.

"Yep." Scarlett's eyes are fierce and shining. There is not a single ounce of regret in her eyes.

This explains it, the rumination. She's not trying to heal because there's still something she can do to fix what is broken.

A knock on the door startles us both, and we look up to find Scarlett's jailer peeking in. "We need to wrap this up, ladies," he says with a sneer. "Commando is asking to see you, Backpedal."

"Five minutes, please," I say. "We'll be quick."

He nods and steps back into the hallway. "Five minutes," he says, just before he closes the door behind himself.

The second he's gone, I spring into action. I spill water on my invisible camera, the one that my handler is watching intently. It fizzles and pops with a smell like burning plastic.

"We don't have much time," I say, fumbling in my desk for the inhibitor cuff key I've had forever. (Yes, I lied about that. In this line of work, I lie about many things.)

Grabbing Scarlett's hand, I insert it and punch in the code that makes the cuff soften. It slips off her wrist and floats to the floor like a silk square.

She stares at me, dumfounded. "What are you doing?"

"Go, before they can come in and stop you," I say. "Save Hanan."

I don't have to tell her twice. She shakes out her numb hand and swirls her finger through the air. This time, the space around the invisible pattern begins to sparkle with light.

I SNAP AWAKE sitting upright in my office. Confused, I blink and look around, trying to remember what day it was.

My phone rings, and in a daze I pick it up. "Hello?"

"Regina," Morgan says. "I've cleared your office schedule for the rest of the day. I need you for field work. Meet me downtown. I'm by Amherst Mutual."

I frown and rise, shrugging on my coat and heading for the door. They only call me in for field work when there's an emergency. "On my way now. What happened?"

"I'll explain when you get here, but it's bad. Critical Mass—"

My stomach clenches in panic and fear, and I'm not quite sure why.

"—is dead."

Relief. Overwhelming relief in waves down my spine, so overpowering I have to stop and lean against the cinderblock wall behind me.

"Oh my God," I say, trying to sound horrified. "How?"

"Heart attack, apparently, although we won't know for sure until we do the autopsy."

She sighs. "This really makes me wish we'd managed to get the contract for that girl who could turn back time. She ended up signing with those Westlake Independent bastards a few months back. We could have really used her today. Critical Mass was the best we had."

"Sure," I say, still feeling dazed. "See you soon."

I shove my hands in my pockets and startle when my fingers close over an unfamiliar shape, cold and elongated and hard. I pull out a cell phone, an ancient one from before the days of projection screens and data plans. I power it on and jump as it immediately begins to vibrate with a new message. There's a long set of numbers, some coordinates and a date, along with a short, cryptic message:


November 30, 2022 14:54

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Edward Latham
22:43 Dec 07, 2022

Love, love, love this story! There's so many places you could go with this cool idea in the future, but the focus on the characters really worked here to introduce them and get you in their heads. Maybe I missed a clue, but what was the significance of 'your turn' at the end?


Olivia Ard
23:55 Dec 07, 2022

Thanks, Edward! I wanted to leave it a little vague but I imagined Scarlett, in addition to making a different choice of employer and poisoning Critical Mass before he could kill Hanan, she decided to come back and set up a plan to liberate Regina as well. I imagined as well that in the several tries it may have taken Scarlett to finalize the timeline changes she was sent to therapy with Regina multiple times.


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