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headlong might save a life

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2042

Well.

Here she is.

After a time, Dani resurfaces.

It’s not that there’s a particular moment which does it – no grand epiphany, no decision that she’s conscious of making. Just a morning where she rubs at her eyes while waking and thinks, “Today’s as good a day as any.”

Reintegrating, this time, is even harder than when she was merely injured.

People look startled, concerned after her in new ways. Should she join them in their worry, with how easy it is to slip back into a routine?

All day, Dani is on auto-pilot. In her wake, she hears whispers. Out of the corner of her eye, she keeps startling at blonde hair, anyone taller than a certain height, another soldier with a gait that reads Grace – Dani keeps expecting to turn a corner and see her. Some ghostly trail of her passing. A sign, a signal. But this is days or weeks after they got the energy signature reading. And Dani’s been left behind.

To get that thought to shut up, Dani checks off her tasks one by one. Her executive officer Juan has handled a surprising number of them in her absence, and is able to let her know which ones are most pressing. So she consults with the representatives tracking reserve stores of general supplies, food stuffs, ammunition, and comfort items. Together she and Juan determine which barracks are in need of inspections, and they schedule those for a week from now with the officers in charge of each. Dutifully, Dani eats. Each swallow is a reminder that she has a body, and that body needs fuel.

Dani attends physiotherapy for a portion of the afternoon, and mercifully, no one comments on how many appointments she may have missed. Next she goes to the barber and has him buzz half of her hair off, on the side where she still has vision – the texture of her shorn scalp is unfamiliar to her, as is the lightness. She looks at herself in the mirror and is surprised at how defined it makes her cheekbones look, the sudden sharpness the cut lends to her appearance. She can sweep the remainder of her hair to cascade down, partially conceal the patch they’ve fashioned her.  

Back in the meeting room, she indulges in a cup of coffee so hot it almost scalds the roof of her mouth The last of her ration of it. There is a knock at the door: the candidates who might serve in her stead if the moment demands it. The process was put into overdrive, when she had been injured; on hiatus, with Corporal Harper’s departure. Yet she’s been told that each of them continued receiving debriefings, backgrounders from each of the lieutenants or captains in charge of various divisions of the Resistance base. That collectively, they’ve met to discuss and propose solutions to the issues they uncover. That’s good. More appropriate than any of them realize.

She has their profiles in front of her, as they all file in; last through, Juan closes the door and sits nearby. Dani sits among them once they’re convened and addresses them. To her own ear, she sounds warm enough. Once some pleasantries are through with and they each have a chance to report what they’ve accomplished, Dani folds her hands in front of her. They all lean in, slightly; the mood shifts to one of careful focus. 

“You come from different places,” she begins, looking them each in the eye in turn. “You have commendable skills, bravery, kindness, and intellect. I am…”

And she steadies herself with a breath. “I am getting older. The war drags on. Even with our successes – even believing that we will soon achieve a victory, one that may cascade into more – we need to be ready for what comes next. Rebuilding. Reaching out to find other survivors, in other parts of the world. I likely won’t see the end of that. Maybe not even the beginning.”

Her XO is watching her closely, at that. Perhaps looking for subtext.

“I have been your commander,” Dani continues, steadily meeting Juan’s probing gaze. “One person. But I know many of you are wondering why I haven’t named a successor. That’s because I want to teach you how to lead together. No single person will take my place when I am gone. The tasks you’ve been assigned so far have hopefully proven the necessity of such an arrangement. You’ve all been chosen, by the ones who love you and know you best. This is how I will honour their belief, and you. Is that enough?”

Not a word of dissent or confusion; a few nods. One of the candidates looks about to cry. Dani smiles as she reaches out to squeeze that woman’s hand.

“Good. We’ll begin that training formally tomorrow. I’d like to discuss each of your strengths with each other. You’ll need to build off of one another, fill in when the others struggle. You each need to know what you can contribute.”

In early evening, Dani intends to consolidate and analyze her notes. Yet as she sits at her desk, with a reluctantly taken dinner that Juan had pressed into her hands before returning to his own quarters, Dani feels unable to move.

“The least you can do is get things out for tomorrow,” she mutters to herself, and after another long pause Dani wrenches the drawer open on her desk, so hard it collides with her shin.

She hisses, curses violently – and without looking, reaches in to take out her notebooks.

Her fingers brush against something with an unfamiliar texture.

Dani freezes.

Her fingers trace the outline – it feels like paper, a packet, and she draws herself closer to peer into the drawer.

A manila envelope – one of the kinds that she might have seen in the office of her boss at the automotive plant, decades and lifetimes ago. This one has been scrawled over so many times, names recorded on each available space. Scrawled upon until the once-golden paper is dingy with writing, almost worn through from pen-impressions. Even so, her name is legible in thick ink. It is heavy in her hand – several small objects or cartridges inside. It takes a few attempts for Dani to unwind the envelope’s thread closure, once she gets up the nerve to do so – her hands are shaking badly.

There is a letter: half a sheet of it, torn from some manual or textbook from the archives in the university they built the base around. Aside from that, there are half a dozen cassette tapes.

Slipping herself to the floor, Dani unfolds the letter.

When she’s read it, she doubles over, and cries until she's scoured clean.

--

2020

“…you are the future.”

The plane is a humming behemoth. Grace can feel Dani’s heartbeat, under her fingertips where they rest lightly at Dani’s wrist. Grace hears something on the radio; beside her, Sarah whispers to Carl, who pushes past Grace and Dani and goes to sit at the controls. Grace hardly notices.

“...And you?” Dani asks. Grace shrugs, thumb running over the back of Dani’s fingers. From this vantage point, Grace kneeling before her – be not afraid – Dani can likely see every abrasion, every scar across Grace’s shoulders and running down her arms. Grace has been careful to speak about herself as someone unmoored from having a future. And even now, she can’t bring herself to lie to Dani. Silence is safer. 

Cautiously, in Spanish, Dani speaks.  

I want to ask you something:  would the Dani you know so well accept your martyrdom? Or would she want you to survive this?”

If Grace couldn’t see the readouts monitoring her vitals, she’d swear her heart stops.

“…and what would you want?” She whispers, knowing that by answering back in the same language, she’s confirming something for Dani. Aware that answering doesn’t mean she can make any guarantees.

I’d want you to live,” she says, without hesitation. She takes Grace’s hand between her own, runs a thumb over the back of it. "I want the chance to get to know you.”

I don’t mean to interrupt,” Sarah interjects, brusque but still shockingly gentle, for her. Nevertheless, Grace tenses, instantly. Sarah switches to English, and says, “we may have an escort, but we also have company. Coming in fast. Minutes before he’s on us.”

“Fuck–!” Grace stands from kneeling and pushes herself to loom over Sarah’s shoulders, instantly wild with fury. They should have gotten more time – Grace frantically sweeps one hand against her forearm to load a terrain map, simultaneously pressing her other palm against the plane’s navigation panel. Below them, wide desert; scrubland, a series of ranches, Grace flicks through satellite images at the speed of her mind. A wide thunderous river, at a hydroelectric dam – still several hundred miles out, but they might be over it in time to evacuate. Further ahead, a set of small towns and heavy industry: a refinery, a metal works, a chemical plant, all drawing from the lake that eventually powers the dam…

“Okay.” Dani says behind her, a little frantic, probably stuck. “Okay…”

Think. That’s what she’s good for, here and now, optimized in this past which is far less deadly than the future she came from. She was made for this, invested in for this, and they’ve got seconds to make a decision.

“I will go and ready the cargo bay,” Carl says, and Grace realizes he’s planning already to fight. Her heart rate ratchets up another notch, and alerts start popping into her field of vision.

“Anything?” Sarah prompts, interrupting again, and Grace realizes that she’s been watched. “Do we have any options?”

“Maybe the dam, with the generators there, but… it’s already right underneath us, I don’t know–”

“What do you mean you don’t know!?”

“I mean while I’m figuring out our strategy, you needed to start bringing this plane down, thirty seconds ago, which you would have noticed if you hadn’t been so focused on–”

Fine,” Sarah snaps, and even Grace feels her stomach lurch as Sarah tips the nose down, too quickly. Grace ploughs forward, nudges Sarah to one side.

“Let me!” she grits out in frustration. Sarah flings her hands up and shoves herself out of the seat, letting Grace ease their incline. A crackle, over the radio, ending with “–what’s going on, acknowledge?”

“Incoming, suspected hostile party, check the rear,” Grace replies tersely, and watches the two fighter jets near them peel away and to the back instantaneously. Shouted declarations over the airwaves for the aircraft behind them to identify itself, before one of the pilots yells for the other to evade. Seconds later, not through the radios, and she detects the pop of gunfire.

Sarah,” Dani interjects, and Grace feels her hand come down on her shoulder, steadying herself against Grace’s body.

“What?”

“Of course. I’m so sorry. We’ve been going about this all wrong, haven’t we?” Grace can hear the driving urgency in Dani’s voice, and it thrills her – so achingly familiar. “You stopped Judgment Day, and we never bothered to ask! How did you win, the last time?”

“I… we melted every trace of the things, and Skynet was never developed…”

How?”

“A steelworks, but…”

They hear Carl from the back. “Interesting – molten metal would certainly be enough to destroy a model of my type. There is no way to tell whether the newer versions have been fortified in some way that we cannot expect, so I cannot accurately predict a success rate if this is our course of action. Not without additional data.”

“But?” Dani says. “If you were the opponent, what would our chances be in such an environment?”

A beat, before Carl replies. “At least 68.4%. The Jeep is equipped with parachutes. I will prepare it for deployment when we are close enough.”

“Grace–”

But after an apologetic nod in Sarah’s direction – one Sarah had returned – Grace has already been filtering back through the results she saw, narrowing in on the towns in the distance. “There’s a steel plant about 30 miles north-northeast–”

An explosion, far off and behind them; a strangled, cut-off shriek through the comms for an instant, before they hear the other fighter pilot swearing profusely over the line. “He fucking knocked Tom out of the sky! We got hits on one of his engines, but he’s still gaini-”

A second explosion. Grace stares at Dani, looks back out the front of the plane. Even in the dark she can see a glittering expanse of water, rearing up towards them; her ears are popping even though she’s eased back on the throttle, and she sees Dani’s jaw working to try and get some relief, Sarah’s eyes shut tight with pain as they continue their descent. A compartment opens, and oxygen masks plummet towards them.

“Will we make it?” Dani yells.

Grace returns her attention to the altimeter – nearly dropped already to 12,000 feet, and still plummeting – and pulls one of the masks towards Dani for her to take a breath from. Sarah’s already got her own installed in place; though she’s taking it off to allow movement, an advance towards the back of the plane. If they want to reach the drop-point she's just plotted out, Grace realizes, she can’t reduce the speed anymore for now, and that means cabin pressure will be an issue. At least, until they rip the cargo door back open. Then it may be the least of their concerns.  

We’re going to try,” she replies grimly, in Spanish, and leans in, flicking the auto-pilot back on before pitching out of her seat. Beneath and in front of them, a glittering expanse of lights visible through towering clouds of steam, a bright line of buildings cut off by a dark shoreline, coming up fast. If Grace believed in such things, she'd swear she feels the world around her shifting in its alignment, the way she did when she was a teenager and saw Dani stepping up into view to save her– wonders if this has ever happened before, and if not, what it means.

-- 

2042

Dani,

I’m not good with words the way you are.

I know I’m going back to see you, but this feels like losing you twice – because I’m leaving you here, because you won’t know who I am.

But I hope that somehow we’ll reach each other anyways.

You told me that sending me back meant we had another chance at this. We can’t say how many we’ve gotten by now, but if that’s true then I’m grateful for every single one. In every life, we’ve had each other. So maybe I’m not losing you at all. You’re more than a mission to me. And more than a commander. I don’t want to call you my purpose, even though you’ve given me one, and I don’t want to call you my fate, because we keep choosing this, and that’s not passive.

I think the only way I can think to put it is that I am yours.

Now and always and in any time.

Grace

 --

Former Commander Daniela Ramos holds Grace’s letter, folded in a pocket next to her heart. An intangible anchor. Insurance against her darker impulses – and those do come.

Each night, Dani listens to at least part of a tape. There are several hours of the recordings – Grace, reading to her from books they’d used to teach Grace the Spanish language, mainly poetry. Some of them are confessional. One features Grace, carefully reciting a litany of the things she loves best about Dani, what she hopes for her. Dani continues to try living up to those things. 

You are never alone, Grace’s voice tells her.

One day, after a successful mission by the Resistance, there are no counter-attacks.

A few after that, a wedge team that punctured into a known Legion stronghold returns – the first to do so. They confirm that Legion’s comms system is disintegrating. The servers are burning themselves out. After that, other teams – some including Augments – venture out and come back with stories of darkened warehouses and re-purposed factories, countless machine bodies half in-production or fully completed, all dark and silent and cold. What units are encountered seem uncoordinated, laughably easy to dispatch. For the first time since Judgment Day, the skies are totally quiet.

By now Dani’s crow’s feet have deepened into wrinkles carved into her skin; even in her fifties her hair is shot almost completely through with silver, and she’s begun to need a cane. She secures her hair, piled on top of her head, with a pin topped by a metal rose. Even tarnished as it’s become by time, it’s still beautiful. With the gradual release of her duties she’s had time to get involved elsewhere, after consulting on tactical decisions.

On the day when the Commanders declare the war is over, Dani carefully does her hair, slipping the hairpin into place where the braid meets the curve of her skull. Laboriously, she climbs to the highest levels of the parking garage where she and Grace used to go. In the open air, she stands, staring into the horizon with her single good eye. Though she waits for something to strike her out of the sky, it never comes.

After that, she comes up more and more. Sometimes, she rages and spars with nothing until she can barely drag herself home. Other times, she brings the tapes and a small player and listens to Grace, reading or speaking her into serenity.

Some months later, a group of emissaries arrives, claiming to hail from a human settlement in the former Great Plains. They’d begun their pilgrimage as signs of heavy metal poisoning began to make themselves known, in the ones who had lived in the area the longest. Not everyone who'd travelled with them made it, but none died because of a machine attack. They are welcomed, offered treatment, with something the Resistance dares to recognize as hope.

Sometimes, when this Dani goes inward, she envisions what might be: Grace, returning, striding tall and sure through the rubble of this world, with the dawn a beacon behind her and a smile on her face like the sun. Her avenger, her love. Somehow, someday, Dani hopes she’ll get the chance to welcome Grace home.

Or in another timeline, somewhere, Dani pictures three figures, not two, watching over a younger Grace as she plays. Sarah tossing Dani the keys as they all pile into a vehicle together, driving away with stockpiles of medication packed in the trunk along with their weapons. And if the end still comes, when this alternate version of Dani stares into a sky blooming explosions, she’ll reach out a hand. Her Grace, alive, will be there to take it.  


Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.

- Mary Oliver, “Moments” 


I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I do not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

- Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XVII (I do not love you)