The Regressioner

by Scott Lininger

Physically she was perfect for my needs, a natural blonde with an impish but not unattractive profile. Though dressed as a civilian, she had the look of a military academy cadet, bodily fit and boyishly coiffured, all with a hint of naiveté, exactly as my requisition had described. “Cassady Rheingold.” I said, referring to the typewritten file in my hand. “How much do you know about regressioning?”

“I’ve studied the machine specs, but I’ve never actually seen one.”

“Ah! But you are right now. First lesson, Miss Rheingold. Regressioners aren’t the machines, they’re the medical officers who run them. I’m a regressioner—job, rank, and security clearance. The machines are just a tool.” I flipped a page in her file. “You were a drama major in your undergraduate years?”

She didn’t respond. I could see her wanting to change her body posture, her autonomic registers literally itching to cross her arms over her breasts. But she didn’t let the nerves affect her behavior. She kept even her breathing under control, promising her potential.

“My graduate study was in timers and vacuum tubes. I’ve studied the war department reels, sir. I’ve read Einstein and Eibel, and I’ve seen the punch card simulations…”

“Stop”, I said, holding up my spotty hand. “I am going to tell you what regressioning really is, Miss Rheingold. Are you ready?”

She nodded slowly, her mouth drawn into a tight line.

“Here, on this army base, we reconstruct the personalities of people who have been through the most traumatic and unnatural process ever devised by man. The machines erase years, sometimes decades, from a person’s mind and body, and then we regressioners do the real work of rebuilding them enough to be useful for the war effort.”

I tapped my fingers against the darkened dials of my radio set. “No news service. No family contact. We’ve our own little world here, cut off from the outside in every way–by necessity. This allows us to stage our little plays, recreating the emotional scars that made a patient what they were before the regression. That’s what I do. I damage people–in a precise and willing way. I make them what I desire.”

I stood up and walked around the desk, leaned in closer to her, brushing the precise edge of her personal space. “You may think that you’re the sum of all your experiences, but give me twenty minutes with your file and I’ll tell you the dozen things that really matter. The people, the events, and even… the secrets.”

She blushed. I looked into her youthful face and calculated how she saw me. Aging professor? Overbearing military lifer? Mad scientist? It would all do for now. I had seen enough to be satisfied.

I retreated back into my chair, easing her discomfort. “I have a particular role for you to play in a regressioning of vital importance, one that could very well determine who wins this bloody war. It means that you’ll be stuck here for a twelve-month tour–a tremendous service to our country. There’s a particular patient here, one of incredible strategic value, who has been regressioned a dozen times. Every cycle has ended in failure.”

“You weren’t able to make him what you wanted?”

“We weren’t able to make her what she was.”

For several seconds, my old calendar clock ticked its solitary sound.

Appropriate, I thought, since it was the only one in the Valley that showed the true date of July 4, 1969. Independence Day, and here we were discussing the very future of the country.

“Who?”, she finally asked.

“You’ll find out soon enough. For now, I need you to report to archives. You’ve got thirty years of history to unlearn.” I saluted her then, entering the role that I myself was to play over the next year. “Your name is now Cassady Banks. You’ll learn the rest in your orientation. Dismissed.”

Awkwardly, she saluted me back. “Yes sir.”

And so began the thirteenth cycle, or so I thought.

#

Weeks later, I watched with envy as Cassady and the other cadets sprinted through the final yards of a swim. Autumn ruled the forests and tarmacs of Nuha Valley, the air tangy with dying leaves and chlorine. The pool sparkled, and for once the landing strip lay quiet as all of the pilots were here. Standing at my post watching the young women train, the familiar déjà vu washed over me. It was, after all, not the first time I had witnessed this exact scene.

I thumbed my stopwatch. Cassady exhaled hard and turned to see the result of her efforts. The clock above her lane read 45-oh-8. She grinned, barely repressing a shout of accomplishment. For a moment I’m sure that she thought she had won. Then her eyes met those of the dark-haired girl in the farthest lane.

As I knew it would, the victory clock read 14-oh-6. The darker girl smiled, shrugged, and pulled herself from the water. Cassady’s face registered astonishment.

Cassady, meet Amelia.

Amelia exited the pool, striding toward her towel with athletic grace, the water-beaded bathing suit a gleaming, second skin. She appeared older and physically harder than the other cadets, a look she carried well.

Cassady watched every motion, as did I.

My beloved patient picked up an extra towel from the bleachers and approached the edge. She looked down at Cassady with a triumphant smile.

“Good showing,” she said.

“Not as good as yours.” Cassady squinted up at her bester, transfixed. “I think that’s a record.”

“Posh! Next time you’ll find some more steam, and then we’ll see some real records.” She offered the extra towel, and a hand. A second later they stood face to face, Cassady beaming.

“You must be new. What’s your name?”

“Amelia. Amelia Earhart.”

My cue.

I strode out to the edge of the pool and bellowed. “Cadet Jameson! Why haven’t you finished?”

Everyone’s eyes went first to me and then to the forgotten, sputtering girl in the deep end, half drowned and in desperate need of help. I walked to the edge and channeled drill sergeant. “Jameson! Swim, damn it! The army hasn’t the time for weaklings like you!”

The other cadets swarmed to my spot, the closest point to the coughing, crimson-faced Jameson. Their every body cue registered fear. “Swim, you worthless excuse for a soldier!”

“She’s drowning!” someone shrieked, exactly to script.

I spun around menacingly and pointed a finger at the trembling girls. “No one is to help her! You ‘ladies’ wanted equal treatment? Well here it fucking is. She’ll do this herself or not at all.”

My eyes met Cassady’s for a brief second. She scowled back at me, standing there next to Amelia. They clutched one another’s hands.
Jameson sputtered, desperately trying to call out. “Doc.. Doc…” She was losing character. I’d seen it before.

“Fuck all, girl!” I shouted over her, turning back to leer toward the water. “Is this how you’ll dally when you’ve a fucking Nazi gunner boiling the water about you? Swim!”

She gasped painfully, taking in more water than air as she tried to cry for help from the others. Her head went under once, twice, and again. Her eyes bulged like those of a slaughtered cow, red and wet and pathetic. The girls gasped.

“To hell with the regressioning! You’ve got to help her!” cried Cassady.

I spun to face her, this time with real anger in my glare. What was she doing? Never before had a candidate broken character so early! But then there came a splash and a shout of astonishment. When I turned I saw something that had never happened in all of the previous regressionings…

Amelia dove under the water, darting beneath Jameson’s sinking shape. She wrapped her arms around her classmate and pushed off the bottom of the pool, breaking the surface with lithesome strength.

“To hell with you, doctor,” said Cassady, and then she dove in to help.

The women around me were utterly quiet waiting for a cue. Defeated, I spoke with a quaking voice. “Script off. Default to character.”

Immediately, half of the girls jumped into the water and lent aid. Within seconds they had Jameson’s limp body onto the concrete and turned so she could cough the liquid from her lungs. The medical team arrived with a gurney. They had expected to be hauling away a corpse, but they reacted without a tick and began checking her vitals. Amelia and Cassady clambered from the pool together, and a cheer went up from most everyone.

I was totally outside the script, the steering variables so damaged that I’d need a month of computer time to recalculate even where I stood, much less how to manage it. It was a month I didn’t have.
Script off. Default to character.

I pointed at Amelia and Cassady. “You two,” I sighed. “Get dried off, then report to my office for reprimand. Now.”

I observed the spark of alliance between them, the instant camaraderie as they left the pool, and I knew a thuggish jealousy as my beloved Amelia laid her hand on Cassady’s shoulder.

#

I limped back to my office and hefted my master flow book under the work light, rifling frantically through pages I hadn’t touched for years. I had to find some similar branch, some chance at salvage. I coughed, feeling very old. My fingers traced the tiny flow lines, skimming the dense forest of notes and punchcard sums, page by plodding page. Flow 3, nothing. Flow 8, nothing. Flow 11, nothing. Think! I felt a light-headedness and a familiar, stabbing pain in my chest.

Damn. Not now.

I forced my breathing to slow–willed my weakened heart to calm itself until the pain subsided. When I opened my clenched lids, my eyes where rested on a handwritten note from the most recent cycle. “Though previous Flows have proven that A.E.’s attachment to a dying lover archetype is required, there is no computational proof that the archetype must be filled by the historical character of Banks.”

It was in my handwriting.

I could not remember composing it.

The door buzzer incised into my blurry thoughts. I turned around to find Amelia and Cassady standing at attention.

“Sir,” said Amelia. “Reporting for reprimand.”

Hastily, I closed the book, forcing my mannerisms back on character. I pulled a handkerchief and dabbed at the sweat on my forehead, keeping their attention on my hands until I’d laid the handkerchief over my calendar clock.

“Cadets Earhart and Banks,” I said quietly. “Do you want to win this war or not?”

Cassady blinked. There was a moment of hesitation in her eyes, and then shame.

“Yes.”

“Yes sir,” echoed Amelia.

“Good. Then in the future you’ll not interfere with a superior officer. Cadet Earhart, report back to barracks. I want you ready for flight exercises by fifteen hundred hours. Banks, you stay here. I’m not done with either of you.”

Surprised, Amelia saluted and left. I pulled Cassady into my office and slammed the door behind us.

“What the hell got into you?” I demanded. “In two minutes you managed to derail a decade of planning, all because you couldn’t follow the first damn rule that I taught you.”

“I’m sorry. You can’t expect me to watch an innocent girl die and say nothing.”

“That innocent girl is a trained actress, Banks!”

“My name is Rheingold. And that wasn’t acting. I don’t believe that our government forces volunteers to drown.”

I waved my hand dismissively. “We had a regression fix on her and a machine ready to fire. She would have woken up tomorrow in her own bed, a year younger and with a god damned medal on her chest.”

“We regression our own people? Without them knowing?”

“Executive Order allows me to regression anyone who’s vital to the war effort. That means Amelia, and by definition anyone I need to make her whole. It’s the only thing keeping us in this war.”

“So it is her,” she said. “No wonder nobody in the Valley knows what year it is. When a patient gets regressioned twelve times, so do… we.”

She sank into a chair. The clock ticked. The pain throbbed in my chest. “Cassady,” I said, calmer now. But I knew I had said too much. “I need you to pull it together. I promise, I won’t do that to you.”

“But how would I know? You could have done it to me already.”

I sat down next to her. “No,” I sighed. “No, I couldn’t. I tried that for the first five years. Five wasted cycles trying to fill your archetype with all of my craft and the single best actress I had. It didn’t work. Since then, I’ve been trying someone different every cycle, praying that I’d get lucky with a new candidate playing the role.”

“What role? I’ve been two months in utter darkness, playing dollhouse, always wondering when if I’d just met the patient, sometimes feeling like I was the patient.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. I should have told you more.”

The implications of my mistakes pressed into me, and the imperatives that were Amelia careened in my brain amidst all the broken paths ahead of me. It was as if I myself had regressioned into a frightened amateur, on my first assignment, thirty years younger, a headstrong psychologist jumping into an uncharted discipline, terrified, over my head, and with nothing resembling a flow book. In those days I had relied mostly on instinct and luck. I had been the only actor, before we even thought of it as acting. What had happened to that youthful talent? Had my skills left me entirely?

I realized that Cassady’s hand rested now on mine. When she spoke, it was with fear. “The war is going very badly, isn’t it? Worse than the reels admit.”

My voice came out ragged. “We’re down to the last plan, the absolute final strategy. A bomb. Rescued from Los Alamos before it was destroyed. But it has to be flown into Berlin at breathing altitude. Ballistic defense is too strong to get anything in from space.”

“Flown. Amelia?”

“Yes. You’re to be her lover. In the real 1939, Amelia Earhart fell in love with Mary Banks, a fellow cadet right here at the Nuha Valley Army Air School. Mary was killed in a bombing raid, and after that Amelia became the best pilot we’d seen or would ever see. The loss is what drove her, you understand? For almost twenty years she was one of our best.”

Cassady nodded. “I remember from the reels. I was just a little girl, but I remember hearing that Amelia Earhart got caught in that first Raumwaffe raid when London fell. They said she burned to death.”

“We saved her. She did die. She would have stayed that way without the regressioning. But we didn’t have a good lock, and we ended up taking her too far, to before she ever came here to Nuha. So I’ve been with her ever since, trying to get her back, trying to make her fall in love with Banks.”

Cassady sat a long time thinking.

“You can’t control who you will love,” she said at last, as if she wasn’t talking about Amelia. “But if you still want me to try, I will.”

“Well then, that’s good. Thank you, Cassady.” Self conscious of my sweaty face, I reached for my handkerchief still hanging on the my clock. As I pulled it free it caught the hour hand, and the whole case came tumbling off of my desk to shatter at our feet. Glass and wood skittered all about, and I knelt clumsily to pick it up.

“We’re done,” I said lamely. “Head back to barracks. You’ll be on flight rotation with Amelia. I’ll make a transfer order so you two are made roommates.”

She knew what I meant.

“Yes. Yes sir.”

And she left me alone.

I sat on my knees with the clock in my hands. After so many years of its comforting ticking, my whole office felt utterly silent. The once-gleaming linoleum tile spread now in broad patches of grey, and in that moment it felt like I had been there for far longer than thirty years.

I’d spent half my career trying to make Amelia Earhart fall in love… but somewhere along the way it was my heart that opened instead, and she could never, ever know how I felt. My hands clenched about the battered clock, and it was then that I noticed its hands were still moving.

I turned the case with trembling fingers and removed the cracked backpanel. The gears had been gutted, and a shiny, antennaed box was attached to the main shaft.

Remote manipulator, a design of my own.

My brain flooded. My heart lurched. God damn it. Who had authority to order regressioning on me, and why?

I did.

Because I was dying.

No, because I did die. Maybe more than once. I sat on my knees for a long time, the closest thing to praying I’d ever done. I’d helped hundreds of patients through this moment, and the clinical part of my brain kept asking the same question that I’d always asked them.

If you could relive part of your life, what would you do differently?

Amelia, I love you.

I dropped the clock to the floor and stood up, resolved. I had the answer to my question.

#

Six months passed as the cadets completed their basic training. Fall turned to winter and winter to spring. Cassady and Amelia became fast friends, their bond strengthened by a shared vitality and competitive spirit. Every feat that Amelia attempted, Cassady matched with gusto, and Amelia’s raw piloting abilities became more honed than I’d ever seen them.

They spent endless hours in in each other’s company while like a pathetic, perverted old man I sat alone in my office and viewed the reels from their room. I watched Amelia dress, and bathe, and laugh, and lie awake at night after her nightmares. I watched her sing to herself and write letters to her mother who was in truth long dead. I composed the replies, the closest thing to direct contact I allowed myself. “I love you,” I wrote in her mother’s hand, filled with melancholy and dirty shame. “I’d give anything to be near you, my dear Amelia. Take care of yourself, and write soon.”

Finally, one warm night at the end of March, it happened. The jumpy reel showed Amelia and Cassady enter their room and flop to their beds after a long day of parachute training. They were chatting about the experience, excited and exhausted at the same time.

“I thought the Sergeant was going to pop his girdle when they were cutting me from the tree,” said Amelia. “He’s such an old gasbag!”

“Oh, come on. He was just concerned about you.”

It felt very strange her coming to my defense. My ears burned with it.
Amelia flapped her hand. “Yeah, okay. I know he’s just trying to win the war and all that.”

“He is,” said Cassady, turning to stare at the ceiling.

Amelia rolled over and propped herself on an elbow. “Do you ever ponder what you’ll do after? I mean, once we hit the skies the whole thing will be over by Christmas!” She laughed, but her mirth faded as she saw the sorrowful look on Cassady’s face. The reel clacked for several seconds before Amelia spoke again. “Cass?”

“Sorry. Sometimes I forget why we’re here. Sometimes I just get lost in all the fun we’re having, and I forget that the war is even real.” She breathed deeply, her face a mask of worry. Tears began to well in her eyes. “It won’t be over by Christmas, Amelia.”

“Posh. Now you’re just being depressing.” But I could see the concern on her face. I bent closer to the screen, my heart pounding. Cassady stood up, hesitated, then crossed over to sit on the edge of Amelia’s bed. She touched her friend’s hand.

“There’s something I haven’t told you. It’s about what happened to you before you came to the Valley.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Come on, Amelia, you’re my best friend. Every time I ask you about it you clam up. I know more about it than you think.”

“I don’t remember is all. It’s jumbled.”

“Tell me.”

“I woke up in hospital. Everyone was a stranger, but they were hovering over me like I was the queen and they thought I’d been dead and… I think I might have been. I don’t know. There was only one doctor who would even talk to me like a person. He reminded me of the Sergeant, actually, only young and… nice.”

I remembered, better than she. How cruel it is that we grow old so quickly. She was, in absolute terms, the same age as I, and in a way I’d known her more intimately than any husband, but I could do nothing but touch her face on the screen.

“What else do you remember?”

“A light,” Amelia whispered. “A cold and frightful light.”

Cassady hugged her. Amelia’s pulled away and smiled. “You said there was something you wanted to tell me?”

Cassady’s face was a mask of indecision. I knew from personal experience what she felt. She weighed now the world against the pain of deceit.

“I love you,” she said. “That’s what I hadn’t told you.”

On the dim and jittery reel Amelia stroked Cassady cheek, then she leaned close and kissed her gingerly… then deeply. They fumbled out of their flight suits with growing urgency as their lips met and parted and fingers explored down neck and back and breast.

I watched until the jealousy became a roar and slammed off the projector, casting my office into darkness. In the utter black I felt for my desk phone, picked it up, and asked the operator for technical ops to give them my orders for the coming day. The voice on the other end mirrored my dread with excitement. We’d never had a cycle go to this stage, but we were ready.

Everything would move forward according to script, the final grand scene of the cycle.

I pulled my revolver from my desk drawer, and loaded it with a single bullet.

#

I was awakened by the blare of air raid sirens. A dim predawn light spilled through the blinds of my office. Outside, I heard the cough of the engines from the training craft. There was a rumbling from down the valley like thunder, and voices were screaming on the tarmac.

Amelia?

Was it already time?

There was no longer a clock in my office. I grabbed my revolver in real fear and rushed outside. From the crimson east, the long, menacing contrails of Raumwaffe heavy bombers cut shadows through the sky. Far too early. The sirens wailed and the actors panicked. A gunnery man ran up to me, his voice. “Sir? Is it real? Is this the scene?”

“Does it matter?” I bellowed as I limped toward the hangars. “In character, god dammit! Do your bloody job!”

The first of the bombs starting impacting at the mouth of the valley. The heat hit me first and then the terrible sound. It shook me to the ground. My knees cracked into the tarmac. I rolled over with a groan and saw Amelia’s plane taxiing from the nearest hangar. Cassady was in the copilot’s seat, unknowingly on script, but entirely off the flow as I needed it to be.

God, I was too late! What the hell had happened with tech ops? There was no way that they’d had time to get a machine lock onto Cassady or Amelia. Could this not be a drill?

Bits of debris rained from the sky, white hot and smoking. One tiny ember struck my shoulder and seared through to bone, and  I howled. God, it was real. I screamed futilely at Amelia to stop, but there was no way they could hear me.

The bombers were passing overhead, at such high altitude that crawled along the sky even at their fantastic speeds. The AA guns were finally starting to pop, but I realized in horror that they were firing blanks, prepared specially for today’s scene. I’d doomed everyone to death.

Amelia’s plane left the ground and she angled the nose gracefully into the still-starry sky, her engines at maximum burn. She intended to engage the bombers directly, still on script, still exactly as had happened in 1939 to start her career as the greatest pilot of all time. It was the point of the whole project, but I didn’t care about that anymore. I had intended to do the right thing for her for once in my life. Instead I was watching helplessly as history replayed itself.

History. Yes! A thread of hope. I ran from the carnage and into the forest, leaving my career to burn behind me. In 1939, the Nazis had positioned their command bomber away from the main formation, at a far rear position that afforded a better view of the attack. The realities of orbital bombing meant that by the time your ordinance reached the ground you’d be well over the horizon. The Nazis weren’t satisfied with that impersonal form of butchery. And Amelia, brilliant girl, had guessed at that. I was hoping that the book burning bastards hadn’t learned.

I ran for a long time until I reached the rim of the valley ridge, my breath ragged and tasting of copper. My side and chest hurt so much that I had to lean against a tree to keep from falling over. The lead bombers were long gone, and the forest here was peaceful despite the Armageddon in its cradle.

Scanning the east, I laughed out loud when I caught site of a tiny morning star closing rapidly on a bar of silver light. There were soundless flashes, a brief and furious fight as Amelia and Cassady engaged the vastly larger command craft. The sun crested the horizon just as the bomber’s payload took a direct hit.

“Atta girl!” I cried.

There were two suns for an instant, and I was forced to look away. Drums rolled through the valley, and when I could see again I glimpsed a trail of smoke falling quickly beneath a blossoming, spherical cloud. I cried out, desperate for any sign of parachutes. Limping in pain, hand clutching my chest, I ran back into the valley seeking the pillar of smoke.

When I reached the crash site I was already weeping. The tiny training craft had landed in a forest clearing and torn itself into a score of flaming pieces. The cockpit lay in the center of it all, unopened. They hadn’t bailed and were almost certainly dead. Flames blackened the glass and I could see no signs of life.

As my drill sergeant character, I’d given the crash safety demonstration a dozen times. Jumping over flames, I reached the landing gear and found the emergency fire extinguisher intact. I squinting and coughed through clouds of white foam, extinguishing a path to the cockpit where I threw myself against the sooty glass.

“Amelia!” I yelled. “Cassady!”

Unbelievably, I heard a weak pounding from inside. Without thinking, I pulled the emergency release and air hissed into the depressurized cockpit. There was a frightful whump as oxygen met super-heated plastic.

“No!” Heat plumed around me, and I saw the two girls’ flight suits catch fire. Cassady was flailing in her harness, screaming horribly inside her helmet as the flames engulfed her. Amelia wasn’t moving at all.

I sprayed the extinguisher until it was spent and thrust my arms into the steaming, chemical fog. I unsnapped Cassady’s harness first and pulled her free. Then I plunged back to get Amelia. I clutched at the adrenaline, my heart spending its last as I lifted Amelia’s body like a child. Then I felt Cassady’s arms around my middle, and together we stumbled away from the clearing.

We collapsed onto the forest floor. Cassady popped her helmet as I removed Amelia’s with my blistered and bloody fingers. Miraculously, a weak moaning came from Amelia as her lips tasted the air.

“She’s alive!” said Cassady, coughing.

“Yes,” I said, not sure whether to be happy. “You’re both alive.”

“That wasn’t one of your scenes! That was a real attack! A real attack in the most heavily guarded part of the country.”

“Yes.”

“There was no sign of the air force. Not a single blip.” Her eyes were wide, her face streaked with soot and blood, her voice filled with despair. “Oh God. We’re done. The full surrender’s probably gone out. We’d be the last to hear that, wouldn’t we?”

I wasn’t really listening to her. I moved a strand of hair from Amelia’s pale face and considered my plan. My heart was aching and missing beats, sending shocks down my arms. I could tell that I hadn’t much more time.

“Our last long-range bomber is still intact,” I said through clenched teeth. “It’s in a hidden bunker at the base of the southern ridge. I think that the airstrip is still workable there. The ignition code for the Berlin payload is 1-9-3-9. Do you hear me?”

Cassady looked at me like I was crazy. “The war is over, doctor. There’s no sense in nuking their capital at this point, and you’re insane if you think Amelia is in any condition to fly! Christ–”

I drew my pistol but kept it pointed at the ground. Cassady’s mouth opened then closed, her eyes wild. “You’re insane,” she hissed. “Still thinking of your damn roles, is that it? Kill the lover to make the pilot? What the hell is wrong with you? It’s too late!”

“You don’t understand,” I said, tears blurring my vision. “The dying lover archetype doesn’t have to be you. For a bit I thought it might be me, that I could be the one to be loved by her and even be the one to die. How stupid I was.”

Cassady moved slowly to her feet, her hands in front of her. “You’re not making any sense. Doc, we have to get Amelia to a hospital. Please…”

“I plotted it all, in another life. Before the regression. Before I met you. Maybe… maybe it was a lot of regressions.” And then I realized, she would know. “Cassady, what year is it?”

She was standing now, considering attacking me. I raised the gun at her, and she froze. “What year is it?! Tell me what year it is!”

“1982. God, you at least know that. You have to know that.”

Good lord. 1982? I’d locked myself into a blind cycle for over a decade? Perpetually near death, searching for the right Mary Banks while the world outside the Valley went to hell? And now I’d found her, and I was pointing a pistol at her chest. Maybe I was insane.

“Doctor, please. Put the gun down. If you send Amelia back into the sky she’s as good as dead. Please… I love her, and so do you. You’re not a regressioner any more!

“You’re wrong,” I said. The pain was so intense that I could barely hold the gun steady. I couldn’t believe what I was about to do. “Cassady, you’re a smart girl. The bomb that we saved from Los Alamos, the one on that plane? It isn’t a bomb, it’s a regressioning machine, the most powerful ever made. It has a sister beneath Washington, D.C. Drop one and the other goes off, too.”

Her eyes left the gun and locked with mine, awestruck. Yes, she was a brilliant person, maybe the smartest I’d ever met. Certainly she possessed the same raw talents as Amelia, even at the controls of a plane. But she still didn’t see the groove I was about to set her upon. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I don’t care if you can undo the whole damn war. You’re not putting Amelia in that cockpit.”

“What cockpit?” It was Amelia’s voice, speaking weakly from beside me. She was sitting up, awake.

“You’re right, Cassady,” I said. “I pray that I am, too.” And with that, I turned the gun toward my beloved Amelia, her beautiful eyes filling with cruel realization, and pulled the trigger.

The shot echoed through the Valley. Amelia snapped back to the ground, an angry hole in her forehead. My heart clenched for the last time and I pitched forward onto her lap, nuzzling into her fading warmth as time became honey.

I heard Cassady gasping, no, no, no, and there was rocking, and the smell of pine needles… Perceptions disconnected, and in my last semi-conscious moment, I thought that I heard the sounds of an airplane leaving a runway.

Somewhere, nowhere, a reel was playing in a darkened office. The screen showed Cassady at her desk studying for an instrumentation test. Amelia was lying on her bed, her back to the wall, reading a letter with a homesick look on her face.

Cassady gazed up from her work at the setting sun in the window. Wistfully, she spoke. “If you could relive part of your life, what would you do differently?”

“I’d have started flying a long time ago,” her best friend said without hesitation. “Maybe be the first woman to solo the Atlantic, or some bloody madness like that.”

Cassady smiled as she considered this, and then she nodded her head. “Yeah. Me too.”

Air raid sirens blared over Berlin, a sound unheard for a generation. A single, silvery craft appeared on the horizon, and Cassady Rheingold, the greatest pilot who ever lived, surrendered herself to fate…

Her payload kissed the earth.

There was a cold and frightful light.

#

I awoke amid a forest in spring, my face nestled in something something soft and warm, and as I pushed myself to my feet I realized with some astonishment that it was a girl.

She was beautiful, about my age, fitfully asleep, and dressed in a strange kind of aviator’s suit. I looked down and saw that I was in a baggy military uniform that was torn and burned all over. I padded myself to check for wounds and instead felt something in my pocket. I reached in with shaky fingers and pulled out an envelope.

As I tried to gather my wits, the girl stirred and opened her eyes. “Oh, hello,” she said. She looked about in confusion then sat up, smiling at me shyly. “Now this is perfectly odd. Last thing I remember I was stepping onto a boat in San Francisco. Sorry, but do I know you?”

I shook my head dumbly, staring at the letter in my hands. “Is your name Amelia, by any chance?”

“Yes it is. So you know me, I guess?”

“Afraid I don’t. But I have a feeling I’m about to.” A bizarre joy welled in me, and I giggled, smiling up at the clear blue sky. I leaned over, took her hand, and pulled her to her feet. “Amelia, this is going to sound mad, but I just found this letter in my pocket, and it’s addressed to the both of us.”

“To us?” she asked with a laugh. “From whom?”

“That’s just it. It’s from me.”

The End