The commercial ended and she came back on the screen.
What is that thing called again? Devek wondered, contemplating the black box on the wall. Ah yes. A television. Forefather of the integrated-vid data stream… The information tickled his brain for a moment. Strange how the ads of this time and mine seem so similar. Did we really lose everything, or is it still there, somehow?
He was sitting at the bar, a glass of scotch, on the rocks and nearly empty, between his fingers. His CO would put him on report for drinking while on duty—and not only that, but drinking real alcohol—but Devek didn’t care. Hell, that bastard had ordered him into this mess. Devek figured he deserved to get drunk. He rubbed a hand through his close-cropped brown hair.
She was singing now. He drained the last of the cool liquid, feeling it bite as it went down. The sensation was disappointingly not comforting. Devek coughed, unused to the drink, and signaled the bartender for another. His eyes never wavered from the screen. Yes, she was singing again, but it was becoming evening and the lounge was filling up. Her sweet voice was almost lost among the clink of glass and the yammering of the other patrons.
Couldn’t they shut up and listen? He wanted to climb onto the bar and yell at them to quit with their pointless small talk. Just listen, he felt like shouting. Too soon music will be dead!
Devek was miserable. His scotch arrived and he downed half of it in one go. Absently he wondered what his next physical would show. The ship’s doctor would probably be furious. “Look what you’ve done to your liver!”
He didn’t care much about that either. She wouldn’t be there with him, so what did it matter?
There was a clock near the TV. A quarter to seven, Devek noted, momentarily shifting his eyes away from the screen. She would be here soon. She came every Friday night, no matter what, for nachos.
What is ‘nachos’, anyway? He’d never asked. It was one of her favorite foods, he knew that. They didn’t have nachos where he came from. That knowledge, like so much else, had been lost.
The image of her on the screen was a recording, made before they came for her and whisked her away from this planet, from this century. She looked a little nervous behind the mic, red hair flaming in the spotlight, fingers subtly fiddling with her dress. It was one of her first broadcasted concerts.
He’d seen her sing like that countless times, always just a bit nervous to perform in front of the scientists and historians as they made recordings and scribbled notes. After a while the nervousness went away; she began to sing only for him, eyes locked on him, words, voice, music, only for him.
Now they were back in this ancient place, their time together finished. He had one last mission to complete before he could go back to his present, her future, a time they were trying to rebuild.
He had to ensure that she remembered nothing.
The door to the lounge opened. Devek turned, his shoulders tense, the scotch and the television forgotten.
Rane stood a moment in the entranceway, surveying the lounge for an empty table while simultaneously shedding a light coat. A few people recognized her; one or two even pointed to the TV above the bar. No one rushed up to ask for her autograph. She wasn’t that famous—yet. Devek smiled as he watched her. There was time before the war would destroy it all. She was good at what she did. The fame would come.
There were no open tables tonight. Rane resigned herself to the bar—and headed for the stool next to the one Devek had chosen.
He returned to his drink, steeling himself for what would come next. His senses vibrated: he could feel her approach. Each step she took was a knife in his heart. His breathing quickened; his heart pounded. Wasn’t there some other solution? Did he have to do this? Damn the regulations! He wanted her with him!
Then she was there, asking shyly, “This seat taken?”
He swallowed and grunted no. Sweat collected in his armpits and between his shoulder blades and he hoped it wouldn’t show through his shirt. Here was the moment of truth: her next words would either rip his soul to shreds or… His shoulders sagged. Or? He was damned either way.
Would she remember? None of the others had. But it was still in the regs to make sure. They had to be sure. Changing the timeline was the worst offense. He didn’t dare speculate what the punishment for it was. The higher-ups hinted but never really said, leaving imagination to take care of it. But the consequences were dire, that he knew.
Rane hopped onto the barstool and looked for the bartender, for the moment oblivious to Devek. He tried to not let his hopes sink and rise at the same time. The lighting by the bar was subdued. Maybe she didn’t recognize him out of his uniform.
He blushed. She would recognize him out of his uniform, but that was different.
The bartender came over. “The usual?”
Rane smiled. Devek felt his body grow warmer. “You got it,” she said.
His glass twisted in his hands; he was reluctant to take another drink with her there. Over the odor of liquor, intoxicated bodies, and his own sweat he could smell her delicate perfume. Suddenly he had to grip the glass to prevent himself from reaching out to her. His mind’s eye was cruel and dragged up memories tangled in her scent: walking together in the ship’s arboretum; private performances away from the scientists and historians; his hands running through her long red hair…
Devek coughed to clear his mind and to catch Rane’s attention. She gave him a sidelong glance. Here it comes, he thought. “Hi,” he said. “You’re really familiar to me. Have we met?” Internally he winced. What kind of godawful opening line was that? She’d never forgive him for being such a dork.
If she knew. If she remembered.
He couldn’t breathe.
Rane looked at him, quirking that small smile that had driven him to fall maddeningly in love with her. His bowels turned to ice and he suddenly felt the scotch rush to his head. Panic bubbled. She was just looking at him. He couldn’t tell if she recognized him or not. The room spun.
She continued to stare, her eyes roving over his face. The smile turned to a puzzled frown. He stared back. Her eyebrows knitted together.
“Actually…” she began.
His heart felt like it was going to burst. He could see it there in her eyes: she didn’t know. No clue. He was a complete stranger to her. That was it: everything was over. Their time together really was lost. He’d go on loving someone who never knew he existed. He couldn’t think; his disappointment and anger wiped everything from his mind.
Devek’s throat was tight. “Sorry,” he said hoarsely and made to get off his stool. “Must’ve mistaken you for someone else.” Somewhere inside he was relieved. His mission was over. Then the other, bigger, part of himself came over and stomped on the relief, beat it to a bloody pulp, and left it to twitch and die a slow death. He wanted her to remember even though it was impossible. He wanted her to love him.
He hadn’t taken one step before a hand grabbed him and spun him around. Accusing, hurt eyes confronted him, eyes that said they knew exactly who he was. “Devek! Tell me what the hell is going on!”
“Oh shit,” he muttered.
A booth opened up near the back of the lounge. Rane signaled the bartender and then they slid into it.
The nachos came.
“My god,” Rane swore, pinning Devek with her gaze. A newly awakened light was in them. She hadn’t remembered—not until he asked her if they’d met. “What the hell are we doing here?”
Devek looked at the steaming food. He couldn’t help it. It was a tempting distraction from the misery—and elation—he felt. He didn’t want to deal with this again. Food was the easiest thing to latch onto. “Can I…?”
“What?” She followed his eyes and then shoved the plate forward. “Devek, this is serious! What happened to the Reclamation Project?”
He plucked a chip from the plate. He recognized most of the ingredients: the chip was smothered with cheese, chives, diced tomatoes, cubes of chicken, sour cream…and something else green. He put the chip in his mouth and chewed; it was hot, crunchy, and delicious. “Please keep your voice down,” he mumbled and reached for another.
Fire erupted along his tongue and involuntarily he yelped, grabbing at the nearest glass—his nearly empty scotch—and dumped everything, ice cubes and all, in his mouth.
Rane tried not to laugh. “I wouldn’t—”
The scotch made it worse. A few ice cubes fell out of his mouth as he gasped for cool air. Nachos, Devek decided as he drained Rane’s glass of water and stuffed the handful of plain chips that she handed him into his mouth, were somehow made out of the interior of a volcano. This is evil! How can she eat this stuff?! Tears streamed from his eyes.
Rane laughed and signaled a waitress for more water. People stared at them. She leaned conspiratorially across the table and whispered, “You really should be more careful with foreign food.” Her hand had a napkin in it and she wiped at his red, flaming face, then mopped up melting ice cubes and spilled water.
Devek gasped for a moment more, then suddenly found himself laughing along with her. She always knew how to improve his mood; her laughter was like her music: light and soothing. The tension he felt broke as he watched her shoulders still shaking with barely contained giggles, her eyes alight with amusement. She’d always had that effect on him. Life in his time was never so bleak and empty when she was around. She’d brought color back to him, and happiness, and fun. She’d given him hope that they could rebuild. That was why he loved her.
The moment withered like a flower left in a desert sun and he shivered despite the stuffy heat of the lounge. The sparkle in her eyes died as she watched his face turn sour. We may rebuild the future, but Rane’s color won’t be in it. Not with me. It just…can’t be. I can’t be selfish. There is a bigger picture…
Devek had been assigned to the Reclamation Project as Visitor Liaison. The title itself was a joke intended to mask the truth: the “visitors” were actually kidnapped from their places in time and brought forward to help the project achieve its goals. It was his job to convince the people to help. He was pretty good at it; his record showed five to one in favor of the project. There were other VLs as well; they’d all done fairly well.
He snuck a glance at Rane as she chewed on a nacho and waited for him to explain. He remembered how she’d been that first day: frightened and hopping mad. How dare they “borrow” her right in the middle of her first PR tour? She was trying to get her career off the ground! She didn’t care that she would be returned at the moment she left. She didn’t appreciate the interruption, and where the hell was she, anyway?
That was the clean version of her verbal tirade, at least. In response he had taken her to the observation deck, a heavily shielded part of the ship that boasted clear hull plating. When she saw the nebula and the triple star system out the window, and when he told her what had happened to humanity, everything changed. She agreed to help. Soon after that he wanted her to stay forever.
It was against regulations.
There had been a war, long before Devek’s grandparents were born, long after Rane’s grandchildren had become dust in their coffins, that destroyed the human culture. The people lost nearly everything that defined them, including the ability to redefine themselves. The people were crippled. By the time Devek had grown into a man, they were still trying to find ways to piece things back together. Some of their allies among the stars had been eager to assist, and technology was shared.
Of everything that was gone, humanity lamented their arts the most. Save for alien entertainment and the like, the arts were virtually unknown to Devek’s people.
They couldn’t use time travel to prevent the war. Changing the timeline was strictly forbidden, no matter how appealing or beneficial the change might be. That was the deal for getting the technology. Its owners strictly enforced the rule and were merciless to those who broke it. But simply raiding the past for information and bringing it forward was not as easy as it sounded. The equipment they had to use was too big and bulky—and obvious. The materials and information they wanted was often in formats not compatible with their systems. Transporting anything with moving parts through the time stream rendered it useless. The human culture had to be rebuilt in the future.
The project’s team gathered all the information they could. Sometimes it took months. The visitors were allowed to see and view everything about the future in order to encourage them to recall and share whatever they could that they found lacking, and relate how things had been. Many of the visitors were horrified by what they learned their own race had done to itself. Then they were sent home, their memories erased, with someone to follow up and make sure they really didn’t recall anything. None of them ever had.
Why? It was a question he couldn’t answer.
“You shouldn’t have recognized me,” Devek said finally. “Those memory pathways were removed. We’re going to have to put you under again.” He couldn’t look at her. He stuffed more nachos in his mouth and this time welcomed the blazing hot distraction of the green things—the jalapenos.
Rane buried her face in her hands. “No no no,” she moaned. “I don’t want to forget! I want to stay with you. Don’t you want that too?” She looked up, reaching out to grasp his hands. “Think of how much more I could give the project if I stayed! And then there’s us—”
He knew there was truth in her words. All of the visitors could help the project by staying longer or indefinitely, by working together, even by being allowed to travel to what remained of Earth and the colonies to spread knowledge of their talents themselves. But that wasn’t allowed. The people were not to know that access to the past wasn’t a myth. If they knew, they would ask to be allowed to escape their present to go to that better time. Staff on the project already made the request often enough. It was understandably tempting, but not a viable solution, nor an option. History could not be altered.
“I’m a good man,” Devek interrupted, his tone soft. He stared at the table. “I try to do right by people. I follow orders, I don’t break the law. I’m trying to help my people get back on their feet. I don’t ask for much in return, just my paycheck and the assurance that we’re doing the world some good.” He looked at her. “Yeah I’m human, and I have my own needs, but—”
They’d had this argument once already. That one had been days long, with plenty of yelling and crying. The one thing they would not admit was that their problem was their own doing. Rane had been told right at the beginning that eventually she would go home. It was too easy to ignore that. It was—
Rane snorted. “You didn’t follow orders where I was concerned.”
“Yeah, I know. Damn regulations.”
“So damn the regulations again! I can just as easily make my career in your time as I could here. Hell, it would be even easier! No competition! And then everybody would get the real thing. Bring forward the other people who helped before. They probably wanted to stay too. You can’t beat the real thing, Devek!”
“Or stay here. That would be easier. What are they gonna do, send in a squad to track you down and drag you back to your time? At least then you would get back everything your time doesn’t have!” She stroked her thumb across his hand. “We’d both win that way.”
“The recall is automatic, you know that. I can’t avoid it.” It was so tempting to say yes. Maybe there was a way to interfere with the recall. He’d never loved anyone like he loved her. He wasn’t supposed to have become personally involved with any of the visitors, but with her he couldn’t resist. She was so alluring; her voice was intoxicating. She was fun, and kind, and loved what she did. That was why he had been ordered to check on her, instead of the usual guy. It was a cruel punishment. “If I stay here, the timeline will change. I’m not supposed to be here. You’re not supposed to be there. I can’t—”
Rane snatched her hand back. “Yeah, yeah,” she spat bitterly. “Regulations. Sometimes you can’t play by the rules, you know.”
“I have to. I can’t be selfish here. If I break the rules, all of my people could suffer. We’ll lose the technology. Where will that leave us? Without access to things we need to revive. This is about more than just you and me. I can’t forget the bigger picture.”
She looked at him long and hard. He cringed. For a moment tears sparkled in her eyes; the tightness in his throat got worse. He knew she was tempted to argue again, and he felt sorry for her, sorry for himself. They were both hurting; if it was possible, he’d go back and prevent them from getting involved in the first place. He saw her jaw working, like she was trying to think of something new to say, to argue with, but there was nothing left that hadn’t already been said, either now or in the future. And she knew she’d already lost once.
God this is hard.
He ate another jalapeno.
Her face changed, became forbidding and cold. “To hell with it, then,” she hissed. He recognized that: this was her defense. She’d gone like this the first time, too. “To hell with humanity, and fuck the future. Rules.” She slapped a bill on the table and then hauled him out of the booth. “Let’s get this over with.”
It was Friday. Again.
Devek was at the bar again, drinking scotch again, watching the TV again.
He nibbled on a plate of nachos, trying to enjoy it. He’d have to see about getting the dish made when he got back to his present. He was nearly used to the searing heat of the peppers.
Rane would be here soon, again. He was sure there would be no problems this time. They’d used the maximum settings, pushing the equipment to the redline to ensure all recollection of him and the future was gone. He hated himself for destroying that part of her. It was a despicable feeling knowing he’d played a part in relegating himself to being alone. She’d never be the same person he’d grown to know and love.
The question of why they’d had to do it twice still nagged at him. Everybody seemed baffled. Nobody would give him any information.
Devek chewed his lip. It was going to be hell getting over her. They wouldn’t let him go under for memory removal—that was also part of his punishment. Already he missed her badly, and here he was, about to see her again, to play the part of a stranger. Torture.
His mind wandered to more pleasant thoughts and he flushed faintly. Beyond her personality, the sex had been great too, better than anything else he’d had. They clicked on every level. To him she was perfect in every way, a twenty-first century woman full of wonders! They were meant for each other—and yet they weren’t meant to be. It wasn’t fair, dammit!
Someone jostled him from behind. He spilled his scotch.
“Hey! Watch it!”
“Oh! I’m terribly sorry!”
Devek turned. It was Rane, looking up at him apologetically and trying to mop up the scotch with a napkin.
“Did I get it on you? I’m so clumsy—so sorry—”
His heart hammered. “N-no, I’m fine. It’s okay.”
She stopped wiping and studied him. “Have we met?” she asked, a puzzled look on her face. “I swear you look familiar.”
He felt sick. This was too much. They’d used the maximum settings! And yet, he hoped the memory removal would fail again. They’d be forced to find another solution, maybe something that included maintaining her memory.
She leaned in to get a better look. “No, sorry. I must have mistaken you for someone else. Anyway, can I get you a new drink? What was that? Scotch?”
“No, thanks,” Devek mumbled, tossing the money he had been given onto the counter with the hope it was actually enough. “I was just leaving.” He made a beeline for the door.
Rane didn’t try to stop him.
The scenery blurred and Devek thought he might cry. The tightness in his throat had moved into his chest. It was unbearable. Cool night air washed over him, and he stopped a moment to get a hold of himself. It was over. There was no changing that. She was lost to him, forever.
Why am I such a rule-loving idiot?
He took off at a brisk pace, heading for a previously-scouted remote area where he could be recalled without being seen. When he reached the small, wooded park he was already starting to fade from view.
Pausing behind a tree, Devek waited for the recall to take full effect. He put his hands in his coat pockets.
There was something in one of them, but he knew he hadn’t been carrying anything except the money. He pulled it out. His surroundings had almost faded from view, dissolving instead into the swirling no-man’s-land between that time and his.
It was a small device with a silver, rectangular nib sticking out of one end. What was it called? He’d seen Rane use one before he’d brought her forward to the project. A USB stick! But how had it gotten in his pocket?
When Rane bumped into me?
A chill swept him. She knew, dammit. Playing possum, my love! Despite the technology, the maximum settings, nearly frying every synapse in her head, she still remembered who he was, and she had known he’d be there to check on her.
How? How?! The question burned through his head. It wasn’t possible, yet there was the thumb drive. The power of love? He felt silly considering it.
The no-man’s-land of whiteness began to fade into the familiar surroundings of the lab. His CO would be waiting for him.
Devek’s first instinct was to report again that Rane remembered, that the memory removal had failed. But the stick in his hand gave him pause. Why would she pretend to not remember, and then put the drive in his pocket, thereby admitting that she did?
Why did she remember? If he reported it again, they’d have to study her, but would they tell him the reason?
Did he want her to become their pet experiment? He tried to visualize Rane strapped to some table, subjected to countless tests, biopsies, and who knew what else to find out why she was immune to the memory removal procedure. If he reported that, she’d be with him then, but was it worth it like that? Kept under watch and poked and prodded like a lab rat?
The corners of the USB stick dug into his skin. No. No, that wasn’t fair. Goddamn regulations.
Things around him began to solidify. The body of his CO took shape.
“Sometimes you can’t play by the rules, you know.” Her voice echoed at him from his memory. He didn’t want to do it again. He knew she didn’t want to do it again either. She’d pretended to not remember in order to get him out of the lounge—and out of her time—as quickly as possible.
“I can’t be selfish here.” His own words. I will be selfish, he decided, and stuffed the USB stick into his pocket; he would try to extract and convert its data later, if he could. All I know is that when I went to the bar, she didn’t recognize me. That’s good enough.
Before it disappeared into the folds of his clothing, Devek caught sight of what Rane had written on a label stuck to the drive. Her handwriting was small and neat:
Always have time for music.
He tried to smile but it didn’t quite come. “I love you, too,” he said.
Originally written September, 2002.