This time you tell yourself you’ll stay put like you were told to. Sit with the engine idling and bide your fucking time. You won’t go running in there after them. Not this time. You know by now that you can’t stop them anyway. That all it’s going to gain you is a stitch in your side and a front-row seat while your whole crew gets shot to shit and you right along with them. All five of you went into this job with a certain level of assumed risk, and there’s no time to explain how someone went and raised the hell out of the bar when nobody was looking.
Your palms are sweating. You wipe them on your pants. Check the clock. Four. Three. Two.
You reach across the passenger seat to pop the door just as Janelle slams into the car, one bloodied hand outstretched comically for a door handle she expected to be shut. She slings the backpack to the footwell. It squelches when it lands. Against the black canvas, the blood might be water.
All dead. You mouth the words as she says them. Her voice sounds wet, like there’s a sponge caught in her throat. You’ve buried her eight times now and know better. Went bad. Just me. Go.
She bleeds out right on time, twelve-point-two miles north of New Liberty on the interstate. You ease the car off onto the shoulder and sigh. You nod the same stale apology to Janelle’s corpse as you fish the half-used roll of duct tape out of her left cargo pocket. Then, as carefully as you’ve ever done anything, you lift the bag out from between her boots.
The artifact is inside, as usual, glowing the same green in the weird pre-storm light. Same idiotic expression on your face mirrored back at you from all its facets. Same hairline crack on its obverse side.
Easy, you whisper, not sure whether you’re talking to the thing in the bag or yourself. Not daring to take your eyes off it as you peel a length of duct tape from the roll. Easy now.
This time you actually get the tape applied. You can’t believe your fucking eyes. It’s like you’re eight years old and it’s all your birthdays and Halloweens and first days of summer vacation all colliding together at once. You barely remember to breathe.
“Finally,” you say aloud, to the artifact or Janelle’s cooling corpse or yourself, you don’t know, it doesn’t matter. “Fucking finally.” You haven’t gotten this far before, so you don’t know yet whether you’re about to cry. Even odds, really. Flip a coin. You’re free.
It’s not three seconds before the duct tape detaches from the artifact’s gemlike face, just slips right off like a strip of wet paper. The artifact falls in neat halves, and that’s that.
So duct tape doesn’t work. Great. Superglue doesn’t work either—you know that from when you ditched the crew in the vault and sprinted three blocks to a convenience store to grab a tube. It took you four tries just to get back to the car in time for one of them—Janelle most times, but Mira once—to show up with the bag drop.
The artifact’s still in the vault for the moment, but you can see it in your mind like it’s been burned into the back wall of your skull. Mentally you turn it over and over, a puzzle without a solution. No duct tape, no superglue—then what? Packing tape? Zip ties? Where the fuck are you even supposed to get—
Janelle snaps her fingers in front of your face. “Ten minutes. Keep it running.”
Everyone else is adjusting their masks, checking their safeties. Josie’s crossing herself, like that’s going to keep her from getting her face shot off any more than it helped last time, or the time before that, or the time before that.
Don’t go, you want to tell them. It’s just a job. We’ll get another.
But you don’t, and it isn’t, and you won’t.
This time you’re still in the idling car when the artifact breaks, somewhere in the building. Maybe a stray bullet caught the backpack. Maybe they fumbled it before they even got it in. Maybe it dropped and broke. You’ll never know.
Like a black bag over the head, that sudden.
Here you are, drumming your hands on the steering wheel, thinking back on that first time. That first time, they’d all come tearing out of the front doors, Janelle in the lead with the backpack clutched in one hand, Priya dragging Josie, whose leg had been chewed up by sentry fire. Mira trailing behind, providing covering fire for the few shots she managed to get off before she dropped.
You’d been halfway out of the car, not sure what precisely the fuck you planned on doing to aid this situation, when Janelle spotted you. Still running, she’d raised the backpack arm and made this kind of shooing gesture: get the fuck back in the fucking car.
When the shots took her from behind, the backpack went sailing through the air to land not four feet from the toes of your sneakers, and the artifact slipped halfway out. Janelle hadn’t even had time to zip up the compartment. No matter. You scooped up the artifact and straightened, just in time for a bullet to plash into your guts with no more resistance than a boot into mud.
You didn’t even feel it at first. You just heard the light, almost musical cracking of the artifact as the bullet grazed its face. You looked down and had about half a second of dim awareness that you’d botched the job. Couldn’t even see where the break was through the blood and matter pouring out of you.
And then something blindsided you, vast and dark. You only realized later it was the street.
Here, now, you still don’t even know what the artifact is. A job. The less known about the better. So went your philosophy previous to this. You are beginning to vehemently reassess this decision.
Three of them make it back to the car this time: Janelle, Josie, Priya. All yelling go go go and pounding on the back of your seat. You almost tell them it doesn’t matter, none of you are making it back to the safe house, not now, not ever.
Instead you play along. Slam your foot down on the gas. The car squeals forward. Beside you, Janelle is inspecting the artifact. “Fuck,” you hear her say. “It’s busted.”
You shut your eyes. Take your hands off the wheel. Foot still gunning the car for all it’s worth. You know what comes next. “Hey,” Priya shouts behind you. “The fuck are you—”
The car never crashes. Or if it does, you’re no longer there to see.
You’ve seen enough movies to know this is supposed to go one of two ways.
The loop breaks when you realize you’re an asshole, you get your shit together, you find your best self. To do this, you almost definitely need to find the other person on this timeline who’s looping too, and then you help each other, cut each other loose, go home together best friends forever. Roll credits. Piece of cake.
You have to find the anomaly that’s causing the loop and fix it. But you’re about two hundred percent sure you’ve got the anomaly pretty well pegged, and nothing you can do does fix it. Dilemma.
Which brings you back to option 1.
Only thing is, you’re pretty sure you’re not any more of an asshole than everyone else, and you reckon that if every asshole got pulled out of the main timeline and slingshot into their own personal self-realization pocket universe or whatever, it might be something of a topic of conversation when they rejoined the collective reality.
That, and your loop seems to average, best you can tell, about fifteen minutes. Sometimes the artifact breaks in the vault due to some early fuckup, sometimes it holds on until you’re halfway to the hospital with Janelle shot to shit in the passenger seat.
Not a lot you can do to better yourself in fifteen minutes. Anyway you’re pretty sure sticking around and not driving off without them should go a long way toward making that quota. Not that you didn’t try that a few times. It worked about as well as you expected. The proximity of the artifact to you when it breaks doesn’t seem to enter into the equation.
You’re starting to wonder whether that first time, when it broke and got your blood inside it, it imprinted on you somehow. You’ve seen in some documentary that birds do this. Baby birds. Not that it gets you any closer to an answer. The artifact isn’t a baby anything. At least, as far as you know. It’s not like anyone even knows what the fucking thing actually is or where it came from. Originally, you mean, not when they dug it up out of the bottom of the sea those couple months ago. Whether it came from aliens, or some previous civilization, or another dimension, or whatever the fuck they’ve been saying on the news.
It’s a job. Find, get, sell to highest bidder, done. This kind of trivia doesn’t enter in.
At least, not usually.
Does running with thieves make you an asshole? Any more of an asshole than the assholes who put this thing in a vault without even knowing what it was? Does it matter?
Janelle bleeds out again, a little slower this time. “Hey,” she says as you speed down the interstate, party lights in the rear view, hospital sign coming up just two exits away. Her voice is bleary, like she’s falling asleep. Your whole self is clenched, hoping she’ll say something from which you can wring some significance. Something like this again? or this is getting real old or I’m getting pretty tired of dying in this shitty car. Something that assures you that you’re in this together.
You don’t care if it’s Janelle who says this. You’d take the same from anyone in the crew. Hell, some bystander you have yet to find. Someone. You feel this is the least you are owed.
But what Janelle eventually says is—nothing. Her heart stops before the thought escapes her mouth.
If this were a movie, you’re pretty sure you’d have more options. More than fifteen minutes between idling car and dead Janelle and broken artifact and reset. It’d just make for better filmmaking. You’d wake up in the morning and have this whole glorious fucking flowchart of choices arrayed out in front of you. None of this quarter-hour bullshit, which is your current and recurrent lifespan. You’ve got a long long list of big ideas in your head, ways you’d play this day different if you only got the chance. You would have stayed the fuck in bed, for starters.
You’re speeding away from the cops, Janelle drowning in her blood in the passenger seat, when the front bumper clips the median guardrail and goes airborne, skimming through the air like a skipped stone. Maybe the artifact breaks before your skull does. Maybe it doesn’t.
Josie drops the bag.
Mira drops the bag.
You drop the bag
A guard recovers the bag from Mira’s crumpled corpse. It’s not zipped this time either.
Priya doesn’t even put the artifact in the bag, just sprints out of there with it cradled in one arm like a football. She lobs it at you. It spirals toward your outstretched hands with mathematical precision. You catch it as if you were born to. It breaks anyway.
You flee, all five of you, without taking the artifact at all. Janelle is pissed, but you don’t care. This job is her shitshow, not yours. At least, not originally. You’re alive. You’re all alive. You indulge in seven exquisite seconds of hope before some fuckwit in the building moves the artifact wrong. Drops it. Breathes on it. Something.
All at once, the four of them wink out around you like birthday candles in the breath of every trickster god there is.
You tear ass into the building after them, not entirely sure what you plan to do, just that maybe if you get in there fast enough, you can reach the artifact before it breaks. Whatever it is, it’s fragile. Obviously. If it doesn’t break when they shoot you, it breaks when it drops, or it falls apart in your hands, or Janelle’s hands, or Priya’s hands, or whoever’s, or because somebody looked at it funny for all you know.
Of course this isn’t the first time you’ve tried this. You usually don’t make it as far as the lobby. The crew runs out past you and you catch a few of the bullets meant for them. Does this affect your asshole karmic balance? It appears that it does not.
This time you’re nearly to the elevators when a security goon comes out of nowhere and clotheslines you, snapping your neck like a twig.
You lie there and lie there and lie there, vaguely aware that you’ve pissed yourself, waiting for whatever’s going to happen to the artifact to do so.
Eventually it does.
Your duct tape retry doesn’t work any better than the first attempt. Neither does ripping off your shirtsleeve and tying it around the thing. You toss the whole car looking for zip ties, but of course there aren’t any, you should know, it’s your goddamn car. You’re beginning to think that the natural state of the artifact is broken, and it was only a matter of waiting for the trigger.
Wrong place, wrong time. Story of your miserable endless life, it’s turning out.
You try to bury Janelle again, but the cops catch up with you before you’ve so much as broken ground. You drop to your knees and let them retrieve the backpack. You’ve made sure to leave it out in the open just for them. Maybe if one of them breaks it, the artifact will change its mind, imprint on one of them instead. If this was a fairy-tale, it would one hundred percent go down that way. Sucks for you that it’s not.
Look at them. They’ve got to be bigger assholes than you. You’re just a middle-aged empty nester with a shit job. Wrong place, wrong time. An accident of fortune. These assholes won’t even let you bury a dead colleague in peace.
Come on, you fucker, you think, fingers laced behind your head, the very picture of compliance. Come on.
The cop slings the backpack into the trunk of her squad car. That single tinkling note, like crystal shattering, barely has time to reach your ear.
Maybe you died that first time. Maybe you’re dead now, right now, and everything that’s come after that first bullet to the spleen has been your purgatory or something. Your ghost’s unfinished business.
Do you have any unfinished business? Fuck if you know. Doesn’t everyone? The botched job, of course, but that doesn’t seem important enough to really count. That said, you don’t really have a better idea.
This time you’ve got the artifact wedged between your thighs, clamping it together while you speed away from New Liberty, hospital-bound. Cursing a constant stream under your breath. Janelle is fading in and out of consciousness, and Josie in the back has stopped crying a while ago and is probably dead.
A deer bolts across four lanes of highway in front of you. You slam the brakes. Out slides the artifact from its nest between your knees. So much for that.
You’re starting to get to know the crew a little better. It’s subtle, and it’s gradual. In your fifteen-minute lifespans you don’t really expect anything profound. It’s interesting, though, to notice things you didn’t pick up on during the first however many dozen iterations of this personal pocket hell you’ve blundered into.
There’s an uncomfortable intimacy to it, bearing witness to a death on repeat. Seeing a person realize, over and over, that their ride is about to be over, it’s their stop, time to get off. Nobody’s tough-guy demeanor seems to long withstand that staring contest with imminent inescapable doom. Yours maybe suffers slightly less than some. Then again, you’re the only one of them who knows you’re coming back.
None of this matters, you want to reassure them, bleeding out, going into shock in the backseat, dying almost instantly on the sidewalk not having made it to the car. None of this is real.
You go easy on them. It’s the only quantifiable reason you have for continuing to make that failed drive to the hospital every time. For steering one-handed, twisted around awkwardly, so you can let Josie hold the other one from the backseat as the light goes out of her eyes. For promising you’ll get them to safety. The doctor. The safehouse. Whatever it is they need to hear, you let them have it from both barrels. Let them die thinking there’s some hope of recovery. You get shot, crushed, mangled, more times than you can count. Sometimes, mercifully, the artifact breaks on impact. Sometimes not. Still, you peel away down the street and onto the interstate, like this is a race you can win.
Would an asshole do that? you ask the artifact.
It doesn’t answer.
It’s been a while since you’ve tried this, so you figure what the hell. Before any of them even leave the car, you hit the door locks and start driving as far and as fast away from that building as you can. A while back you amused yourself for five minutes by naming a few of your most memorable failed solutions. This one’s called The Only Way to Win is Not to Play.
You still can’t figure out why it doesn’t work. The crew doesn’t go in to steal the artifact, ergo it doesn’t leave its vault, it doesn’t get fucked with, it doesn’t break somehow and trap you here. Worth another try, you reckon.
You’re not halfway to the nearest traffic light when Janelle pulls a gun on you. “The fuck is this?” she demands. She’s the one who hired you, after all. You’re making her look bad.
You guess the relic breaks later, when they fuck up the heist somehow. You don’t know. Janelle’s bullet has already gone into your ear like a secret, and she and Priya will have stashed your body in the trunk.
“Quick,” you say. You’re going ninety-five down the freeway, which is all this beater car can handle. Beside you, Janelle quietly hemorrhages her way into a semiconscious fugue, mumbling something you can’t make out. You’ve just had what can only be described as an epiphany. You’ve seen the movies. You can’t believe you haven’t thought of this before. Heart pounding with preemptive victory, you shout at her: “Tell me something about yourself that nobody else knows.”
This brings her around a little. “The fuck?”
“Your favorite book. Your favorite color. A secret childhood memory. Come on.”
You don’t bother explaining the time loop. It won’t work any better this time than it did the other seventeen times you tried. You know from long experience that she does still have just enough strength left in her gun-arm to render all your effort null and void. Yes, if she shoots you, at this speed the crash will pulp her where she sits. You’ve come to learn that at this stage of the game she’s half-delirious and has run comprehensively out of fucks to give. Odds are not in your favor.
But the ace up your sleeve is: you’re fucked either way.
“A scar from an injury when you were a kid. The name of your first dog. A constellation you always look for in the sky. An ice cream flavor you hate.”
“You,” she pronounces carefully in her slushy voice, “are out of your entire fucking mind.”
She doesn’t shoot you, though, which is the good news. The bad news is that she’s on the verge of blacking out, probably for keeps.
Whatever she says next, you can’t make it out. You lean in. You’re not paying anything like the required amount of attention to the road. “What?”
Nothing. You take a hand off the wheel to shake her. The car starts coasting eastward. “Janelle. Speak up.”
Only about fifteen percent of the car is in its own lane anymore. You’re holding Janelle up by two fistfuls of jacket. You can barely hear her over the sound of her lungs, the wind slicing past, someone laying on a horn somewhere to your nine-o’-clock. Her head bobbles like a daisy on a broken stem. “Janelle?”
“Strawberry,” she mumbles to nobody, in the last four seconds before the semi smashes into the car, reducing both of you and the artifact into slurry. “Always tastes too…too fucking fake.”
“Strawberry,” you say to her. “You hate strawberry ice cream.”
Fingers curled around the door handle, she pauses just long enough to spare a long-suffering glance at you over one shoulder. “I’m not your friend,” she says, and is gone.
“Strawberry,” you say to her. “You hate strawberry ice cream.”
Fingers curled around the door handle, she pauses just long enough to spare a worried glance for Josie and Priya still performing last-second gun-checks in the backseat. I don’t fucking know, this look says. She came highly recommended. Let’s just get this done.
“Everybody hates strawberry ice cream,” Priya says from the back. “It tastes like plastic ass.”
“Strawberry,” you say to her. “You hate strawberry ice cream.”
She doesn’t even elect to dignify this with a response. She opens the door and steps out into the day. Someone must have tipped off the cops. They mow her down where she stands.
This isn’t working.
You’re fucked. Nothing but fucked. Over and over and over.
They don’t trust you. Why should they? They don’t know the first fucking thing about you. You’re somebody Janelle’s cousin’s ex recommended. If they trusted you, they might have given you a gun. Some more info about the artifact they’re risking everything to steal. Some more info about the crew with which you’re locked into this endless hellish trust-fall. Something. They could all be agents with the Department of Defense for all you know, and the heist is a cover to keep dumbfucks like you off the trail of what’s really going on. They’ll put a bullet in the back of your skull when they’re done with you. Dump you at the side of the interstate. Back among those trees where you’ve buried Janelle so many times you’ve lost count. Raccoons will gnaw your bones.
Wait a fucking second.
They don’t know you. You could be anyone.
Times when you don’t fuck up the process by opening your mouth and causing one or more of them to break schedule, you could set a clock by how they deploy themselves from the car. First Priya, then Josie, followed closely by Mira, followed last by Janelle.
Priya reaches for the handle and you slam the locks. This has gotten you killed at least four times by your count already.
Outraged noises from the backseat. Somebody cocks a gun, way too close to your head. Now or never.
“It’s a setup,” you tell them. “You go in there, you die. All of you.”
“The fuck is this?” Mira demands. She’s not talking to you. She’s talking to Janelle. Janelle who vouched for you. Who bleeds out beside you every fifteen minutes on average until the heat death of the universe, best you can tell. Sorry, you think at her, like she hasn’t shot you herself upward of two dozen times already.
“Fuck if I know,” Janelle says. She prods you with the barrel of her pistol. “You heard her. Spit it out.”
Considering what you’ve been through already, it’s still surprisingly hard to play it cool with her gun against your neck.
Nine times out of ten, your dying words are mumbling about how you never should have taken this job, you think. And ten times out of ten, you die either way. “Don’t trust me, then,” you say instead. “Trust your instincts. You never liked the look of this job.”
Janelle blinks. The gun shifts a fraction of a millimeter. Her trigger finger doesn’t move.
“Shoot her,” Josie tells Janelle. “I’ll drive.”
This riles Janelle enough to shift her focus infinitesimally. “I take orders from you now?”
In the backseat, Josie shuts up fast.
“There are other jobs,” you say. You, for whom there is no other job, not now, not ever. “You know I’m right. This is not our fucking day, believe me.” You make yourself shrug. “Or, you know, don’t. Shoot me if you want. Thank my corpse later for the warning, when you walk into the ambush that’s waiting in there for your dumb asses to blunder in on it. I don’t care anymore.”
Janelle looks at you. Then she looks at the black glass spire of the building. Then back at you, eyes like lasers. Something in your face has her shaken. That, or the building spooks her. As well it should. It’s crawling with security. “You’re in on this?”
You shake your head. “Look, I just want to get the fuck out of here.”
“Yeah,” Janelle says under her breath. You’re not sure if she’s talking to you or the building or herself or what. Unconsciously she rubs the back of one wrist against her stomach, like her body remembers the deaths her mind cannot. “Fuck it. Drive.”
“No fucking way,” Priya shouts. “I came here to get my cut. Who’s going to make good on that? You?”
“There’s always another job,” Janelle says. Then, in a sharper voice: “I thought I told you to fucking drive.”
It’s a second before you realize this means you.
The artifact will break, of course, whether any of you touch it or not. Eventually it always will. You’re not getting out of this that easy. But—and you’re not sure if you’re hallucinating this entirely, it’s that subtle—the length of your lifetimes has been slowly, slowly, semi-steadily increasing. Sometimes, when your plan works, and nobody shoots you and nobody gets shot, the whole loop takes ten minutes, but sometimes it takes thirty. Occasionally, lately, it even pushes thirty-five.
Sometimes they won’t trust you. They’ll shoot you where you sit. Sometimes the artifact will break early. It’s impossible to predict.
But one day, if you’re very lucky, you’ll pass the exit to the hospital, and it’ll be the most beautiful fucking thing you’ve ever seen. One day, after more iterations than you can even begin to guess at, you might get a solid hour of lifetime in one stretch. You’ll drop the crew off as they direct you, one by one, at separate blocks. Nobody will thank you. You won’t care.
One day you’ll realize you’ve probably lived longer, in these little fifteen-to-thirty-to-sixty-minute bites, than you would have in your whole life on the collective timeline.
One day, much later, your lifetime might span two hours.
One day, past when everyone you left behind and all their children and all their children’s children are long since dead, it may even reach four.
One day the sky will change color, right there above you, and you’ll be convinced it’s your mind finally bowing and breaking under the strain. You’ll wait to die, really die, and fail to.
One day, another lifetime later, you’ll realize what you’re looking at.
The sun. Setting.
For now, you do what you came here a thousand thousand lifetimes to do.
(Editors’ Note: “Getaway” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 33B.)
© 2020 Nicole Kornher-Stace