Her arms ached as she worked the cream rinse through her straight black strands. Her hair was longer than she remembered, but that wasn’t unusual. Unfortunately, neither were unexplained rug burns and bruises. She hated the disconnection that drafting left her. If not for Jack, she’d be adrift. Alone. Lost.
Jack will tell me, she thought, lingering under the water as she wondered if her mother might have died in the last six weeks. Not knowing how she felt about that, her thoughts turned to her first draft—or at least, the first one she remembered. She’d been ten, swinging too high at the playground. A fall had broken her arm, but it had probably been getting the wind knocked out of her and the accompanying surge of adrenaline that had caused the jump. She’d since learned to control it and could draft at will, but the fear of dying would always trigger an unstoppable draft. She actually thought she had died that afternoon, when she suddenly found herself again swinging, watching a ghost image of herself gasp for air on the ground, her mother frantic.
At least, that was the memory she’d eventually defragmented with the help of Dr. Cavana, a child psychologist she’d been referred to after the episode at the park, teased from her over the span of several months. Stress-induced amnesia, they called it. But when she kept waking from nightmares of suffocation and a broken arm when she clearly didn’t have one, her mother had gotten scared, overreacted—and unknowingly changed Peri’s life.
Dr. Cavana had been a nice old man, part of the covert government-funded group that found and evaluated potential drafters and anchors, the same branch of government she now worked for. Far more than a mere anchor, he could delve into a drafter’s mind and painstakingly rebuild memories he hadn’t witnessed. The skill had made him unique and therefore sheltered, but she’d always harbored the idea that he could kill a man in five seconds if he needed to.
Cavana had been the one to tell her about anchors and drafters, and that if she worked hard and took the right classes, she could join the clandestine, elite government force developed in the ’60s to counter the Cold War intel, the drug war, the war on terrorist activity, and any war they felt like in between. Opti agents tweaked the present to set the future, and they had their fingers in everything from the development of soft fusion, to the legalization of replacement organs, to making sure U.S.-financed Finland made a manned landing on Mars before Putin.
Anyone who’d ever experienced déjà vu could be trained to remember altered timelines, but the anchor’s ability to mesh his or her mind with a drafter’s to rebuild those timelines was a rare skill. Drafters were even harder to find, seeing as they forgot both the history they changed and the history they wrote. There was a reason Cavana had been posing as a child psychologist, and even today, recruits were pulled from youth mental health wards.
Cavana made sure she got into the best schools, and she eagerly took the classes he suggested, wanting to be just like him, not minding having to lie to her overbearing, controlling mother, who thought her master’s degree in military tactical innovation meant she was in a lab designing weapons, not that she was one.
The two years spent in a special branch of the military were like heaven on earth, both the hardest thing she’d ever done and the best. It was there that she learned how to use her body as a weapon that couldn’t be turned against her, how to shoot when she had to, and how to avoid it by using her wiles. The science geeks helped her develop the framework of rituals to keep her balanced after a draft and ease the confusion. Some drafters, the men especially, could draft longer than she, but it was her opinion that the best draft was the one you didn’t have to make.
Hearing Jack’s footsteps outside the door, Peri turned off the water and got out, trying not to drip on her overnight bag. Wiping the mist from the mirror, she palpated the skin around her swollen eye. It was turning purple already. She jumped at the soft knock, even though she’d expected it.
“I’ve got your usual on the table,” Jack said, peeking in to hang a robe on the back of the door and set a steaming cup of take-out coffee on the glass shelf.
Still dripping, she leaned to give him a kiss. “You’re too good to me.” His lips tasted of coffee, and her eyes dropped. “My mother didn’t die in the last six weeks, did she?”
Jack gaped at her. “Good God, no! What brought that up?”
Feeling silly now, she shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Oh, Peri …” He awkwardly edged his way in, taking her in a damp hug and pinning her behind her towel. “You talked to her last week. Everything is fine.”
“So am I,” she insisted, not liking the lump in her throat. “But I want to get last night’s task back before I get in the car.” His arms eased, and she looked at the guard’s button sitting on the shelf. “Can we build the defrag around that?”
He nodded solemnly and took it. “Um, yes. I talked to Bill. He’s freaking out. Are you sure you don’t want to wait and defrag at Opti?”
“Opti?” she blurted, thinking the request was unusual. But there was a memory knot, and he was tired. “I’d rather do it now if you’re okay. You are okay, aren’t you?” she said, and he nodded, head down as he backed out and shut the door to leave Peri with a lingering unease.
The six weeks she’d lost wouldn’t come back on their own, and there was only so much Jack could reasonably return to her. Sandy, her Opti-assigned psychologist, who’d been with her from the start, said that the larger the difference between the two timelines, the deeper the damage went. Six weeks for saving her life wasn’t a bad exchange. Six weeks was manageable. But she had to know what had happened up in that room.