Rewind (Time Captive Book 2)
Valda is trapped, but far from alone. Andreas, Hatch, Oz, and Dirk are all fighting to stay at her side as they work their way through a puzzling prison. The greater struggle for Valda is rebuilding the trust between the five of them.
She doesn’t have their memories, but her guys have proved they’ll start over again as many times as needed. When Oz discovers they are on the clock, the pressure ramps. It will take every one of them working together to solve the riddling path to freedom. As they pull apart their lives to help her rebuild hers, Valda and her men will be tested.
If they succeed, no one can really tell her what waits on the other side. They’ll sacrifice everything to save her. Can she do any less?
**Please note this is a reverse harem and the author suggests you always read the forward in her books. This is the second in a trilogy and the story will continue through future books.
***Previously published as Their Sacrifice by Jazz Michaels, a pen name. Now re-edited and proofed for re-release
“Try again, fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett
Air hissed from the mask when Oz ripped it off his face. One of the computron assistants reached toward him, but he waved aside the synthetic. He’d never asked where Hatch had acquired them, and he didn’t plan to change it today. What he didn’t know he couldn’t be forced to testify to, or so the pirate often told him.
Ejecting from the construct hurt every single time. Andreas had been right behind him, but the priest acclimated slower during injection and exfil. Across the room, Hatch slid off his medbay bed and staggered over to the showers. His coughing indicated his lungs hadn’t adapted to the freedom of pure oxygen, but Oz only shook his head.
“Attend to Benedict,” he ordered the synthetic trying to check his own vitals. His own haggard expression shown back at him from the mirrored surface metal as the assistant nodded. It would follow Hatch into the showers, and pick his sorry ass up if he collapsed in there.
Shoving off the bed, Oz headed to Dirk’s medbed. The captain lingered, and his vitals were all over the place. Dammit. The man never ejected until the last possible moment, not that Oz could blame him. None of them ever wanted to leave her, especially when they knew she couldn’t follow them out, and all the progress they might have made would be lost to the reset.
Andreas released a groan. A timer on the wall ticked down ominously. In a moment, everything would reset. “C’mon, man.” Oz stared at the digital readout, even as he prepared the injection. Twice now, Dirk had emerged nearly psychotic from waiting too long to eject. It had cost them a month previously after he broke Oz’s arm and dislocated Andreas’ knee. If Hatch hadn’t shot him, they might have lost everything that day.
“Ten seconds,” Andreas groaned, and the hiss of air accompanied his release of the oxygen mask.
“He’ll do it.” Hatch’s weary voice echoed from inside the tiled bathroom where he’d paused at the entrance. Oz didn’t waste time responding to either of them, he was just glad they were with him.
The only one allowed inside the Hexagon while they were injected was the assistant.
For once, Oz wished Andreas would just shut up. The assistant’s footfalls echoed across the room in time with the countdown.
Dirk’s eyes jerked open at the one-second mark, and though his pupils were fatly dilated, awareness filled in rapidly. Oz blew out a breath, but kept the sedative ready. His men outside would be alerted to the return of their leader. A whole unit, prepared to follow him into fire, secured Valda’s facility while the four of them worked to retrieve her from the coma.
“Alert, mental reset commencing. Twenty-four hours until safe injection.” The impersonal nature of the system’s computer didn’t alleviate the stress of knowing that for the next twenty-four hours, no matter what happened—Valda was alone.
Dirk blinked once, then twice. Gradually, his pupils shrunk from the size of saucers. He zeroed his gaze onto Oz’s, then gave him a hand trembling thumbs up. Psychotic episode averted, Doctor Oz could stand down and let his friend out. He nodded and stowed the sedative before walking to the window separating them from the enhancement chamber.
Inside the clean room, Valda Bashan slept as if unaware of everything that transpired during their last construct over the last few weeks. They’d had to leave her behind, still trapped in her coma. Five years and all they had to show for it was failure.
One failure after another.
Hatch joined him, still dripping from the shower. With white knuckles, he braced himself against the railing and stared into the room. “Positive cycle.” A new construct was underway. They could all read the monitors, but Hatch had appointed himself in charge of the equipment he’d brought in. The man might very well be a rogue, but he was also a hell of an engineer. “In an hour, we’ll see the scenario she’s chosen.”
They could program in all they liked, but for the construct to take—Valda herself had to accept it. If she pushed too hard or doubted too much, the construct itself would begin to collapse. That had been the source of numerous problems in the beginning. They’d just wanted to program in the information so she could follow the breadcrumbs right out of the medical sleep.
Those constructs collapsed like a house of cards. Every. Single. Time.
“She lasted longer with the truth this time.” Even when they made it to injection on her positive cycles, there was never a guarantee they’d make it long enough to soften the blow of the truth.
“It happens,” Oz reminded him. Hatch had jettisoned, as they all did periodically, to see to her physical body. She had to be washed, exercised, her muscles massaged, her nutrition feed checked, and vitamin infusions delivered. Saving her mind was their priority, but keeping her body intact was vital to assuring she had a place to return.
“I should have told someone I was going to bounce early.” Hatch’s hand tightened, and the bands along his knuckles stretched taut. “I thought I had enough time to jet, take care of her, then inject.”
Oz agreed. Had it been any one of the other mornings, he would have been right. Before, Valda ignored them while she worked. They had to coax her to come out—then she made a change in habit.
“It happens,” he repeated the earlier sentiment. “We’ll learn. We’ll adapt. We’ll do it better.”
The slam of a door behind them pulled both of their attention. Dirk sat on the edge of his medbed, but Andreas was gone. Dammit. The priest took their failures personally.
“I’ll…” Hatch began, but Oz shook his head.
“You have to monitor the positive cycle.” Not that he could do anything if it collapsed, but the clock reset each time. “I’ll take care of Andreas. We’ll be back soon.”
They would need to plan their next injection carefully, but Oz understood Andreas even better than he did the soldier and the pirate. The priest wore the mantle for everything wrong around his shoulders. He would let it choke him to death if they allowed it.
“Take care of Dirk.” He clapped the other man on the shoulder, and said, “And towel off. You’re dripping everywhere.”
Hatch laughed, and Oz took one last look at their woman before he followed Andreas out of the Hexagon. She looked so small amidst all the machines. Every year, she seemed to fade more, until all that was left was the framework of the bright and bold spirit housed within.
We’re coming. Hang on for us.
It took effort to force himself to walk out. They’d all learned how to struggle with the waiting, whether it was pre or post injection. Patience was the only armor they had in the fight to free her.
Dammit, it would work. One way or another.
With ten minutes to go for the report on Valda’s chosen construct, Dirk stood in the center of his office. Compound security reported to his men, and his men secured the residence. A dozen members of a highly trained spec op force referred to the compound as a beach vacation. The world, however, continued to orbit beyond their trapped existence.
“Sit rep.” If he didn’t trust these men, they wouldn’t be here. He’d bled for them, and they would bleed for him. They had a very specific set of orders when he was under—first and foremost, protect Valda and her installation.
His two chief lieutenants filled him in on a shift in the government of the EU. The prime minister of Belgium had been assassinated. Military forces in Greece overturned their democratically elected government, installing a General as the titular head. Outbreaks had been reported in Italy, Canada, and Panama. Brazil had withdrawn fully from the health accords.
The world was continuing to go to hell in a handbasket.
Hatch slid inside and leaned against the wall. The pirate did that more and more, whether it was because he wanted to keep an eye on Dirk, be there as back up, or understand all the security protocols so he could circumvent them, Dirk wasn’t entirely sure. Likely all three.
“Any word from home office?” It was the question where he never wanted to hear an affirmative answer. The unit had been deployed as a favor, but upsets back home had shifted the government to a far more isolated entity, flirting with a final breakaway from the commonwealth.
Over time, Dirk had come to believe they’d been forgotten, and he’d given his team leave to make other arrangements if they wanted to return. None had gone. The only family they had was stationed at the compound, and they’d sworn allegiance to him. Dirk’s allegiance belonged to Valda.
If the world kept spinning toward more insurrection, he would have to build an army to keep her safe. These men were the first and last of his defensive measures beyond the four who loved her.
Fortunately, New Zealand seemed untouched by the stressors tearing apart the world. How much longer that would be true was anyone’s guess. No sooner did he dismiss them, than Dirk’s gaze tracked to the empty office next to and slightly above his own. Valda had rarely used it outside of meals and the occasional late night spent reading research—but it had put her right where he could watch her back and where she could look down through the fruit trees to the beach.
Only loneliness occupied it now.
“All signals are good.” Hatch spoke the moment they were alone. “The construct is forming around her.”
“Good.” It wasn’t. It was another demonstration of their failure to achieve mission objectives. “What’s wrong?”
The other man paused, but Dirk just waited. Hatch didn’t have to leave the Hexagon to find him in the office. There was no way Dirk would be late, so he wanted to talk. They had about five minutes. It would take three minutes to get down to the Hexagon.
“Fine.” Hatch exhaled. “I fucked up. Maybe I should just monitor the construct this time. Eliminate the need for ejection, and I can take care of her from—”
“No.” End of story. Folding his arms, Dirk spared a look at the clock, then at Hatch.
“You haven’t heard me—”
“I don’t need to.” As aggravating as the whole situation was… “Valda needs all of us. Even you, pirate. We are explorers using technology we barely understand to insert ourselves into her mind. We have no business being there, no matter what claim we have on her heart, except she needs us to get out of there. She needs all of us.”
“You’re not going to listen to me on this are you?” Wearing a wry expression, Hatch shook his head.
“No.” Every man in Valda’s life earned their own way into her affections. The brilliant mind, always working, barely noticed the people around her. Yet she’d seen each of them. She’d seen him. “Anything else?” He circled the desk to skim the reports. Three more minutes, and they needed to head for the lift.
“You’re an ass sometimes.” Grudging respect echoed within his tone. “I don’t want to fuck this up for us again. We were close.”
No, they hadn’t been. She’d pushed Dirk, and instead of keeping her at arm’s length as he had before, he’d folded. Dirk missed her like he missed an extension of himself. The science, the work she did, he’d never understood. The woman? He knew her. He saw her. He wanted her back, goddammit.
“We’ve been close before. We’ll be close again. The mission isn’t done until we bring her back.” The subjects on all the emailed messages fell into line with the sit rep briefing his men had given him. The world political situation continued to disintegrate, even as it spun onward. Time was leaving them behind. Governments usurped, others burned to ashes. What the hell would their world look like when it was all over?
“Has it occurred to you we might not make it?” The question raked through Dirk’s soul, and he pinned the other man with a stare. Andreas might be more outspoken with his doubts and questioning, but Hatch…Hatch bled because he blamed himself for her position in the first place.
“It’s not an option.” Straightening, he tapped his knuckles against the desktop. Discipline was the one strength they all had to rely on when they inserted. Valda had enough problems—she didn’t need theirs. “If you want out, the door is open.”
“Of course I don’t want fucking out.” Anger heated his voice and chased away the cloud of defeat. Dirk preferred a pissed off Hatch to a depressed one. The first was dangerous and always thinking. The latter? He was only a threat to himself.
“Good, then stow your crap, and let’s get down there. We need to know what we’re facing.” Dirk logged out of his screen and engaged the personal security protocols. He trusted his men, but keeping a backup plan provided for future alternatives.
“You’re an ass,” Hatch complained as he followed him into the lift.
Not arguing, Dirk placed his palm over the reader, then chose the Hexagon level. “When I need to be.”
Folding his arms, Hatch leaned against the back wall. “You’ll never give up, will you?”
“No.” Not as long as he lived. When he made a promise, he kept it.
The lift glided to a halt, and when the doors opened, Hatch took the lead. Apparently, his momentary crisis had been averted. “I found us some new toys…”
Of course he had. Hatch didn’t waste time once he’d decided.
Dirk wished he wouldn’t waste time on deciding.
In his suite of rooms, Andreas stripped off the diagnostic tabs. His hands shook and his stomach revolted, but he ignored both as he stalked across the comfortable living room and into the near barren bedroom. His only concession to Valda’s more hedonistic tendencies was the huge bed in the center of the room. Preferring a space devoid of distractions, he’d slept on a mat on the floor before falling in love with Valda. She didn’t like sleeping on the floor…the beach, yes. The floor, no.
A ragged laugh tore out of his throat as he let the tabs fall where they may. When they inserted, they had to wear the ridiculous life suits to monitor their stats and their bodily functions. The suits clung, tore out hair, and generally left them raw. They were better than the alternative.
Peeling down the leggings, he ignored the sting of hair ripping from his legs and tossed them in the recycler. Someone else could clean them. In the bathroom, he cranked the water to ice cold and stepped underneath the freezing spray. The chill sliced through the grogginess, and flogged him to his soul.
Bracing his palms against the tile, he forced himself to stay under it until he went numb. Loss cut him inside, and tears streaked down his face. Every damn failure cost them more time. A part of him wanted to know when enough was enough, and the rest of him knew—it would never be enough.
Never. She’d taken the damn cure because of his stories. All the tales he’d shared with her of the condition of the world. The condition of the people…
Curling his fingers into a fist, he slammed it into the wall.
Mothers bleeding to death.
Children starving, fading from malnutrition.
Birth rates dropping everywhere.
Poverty. Starvation. People knifing each other over fresh water.
The tile cracked, and a sliver of it cut into his hand.
Staring at the shattered pieces, he watched the blood trickle along his clenched fist before the water diluted it into a pink stream. Flipping the switch, he turned the water to hot and faced away from the spray. It threatened to scald him through the numb, but he needed the physical pain. Needed it to ground him.
When he finally shut off the water and stepped out of the shower, it didn’t remotely surprise him to find Oz waiting with a first aid kit.
Sometimes, the doc knew him better than he knew himself. It was really fucking annoying.
“Doc.” He didn’t give a damn about dripping on the carpet as he padded across the room.
“Lobster,” Oz said, as he rose and pointed at the bed. “Sit.”
Arguing would be pointless, so he sat and held his damaged hand out.
“Talk,” the man ordered as he pulled out more slivers of tile with a pair of tweezers. Each yank dragged at him.
“I don’t want to.” Melancholy flooded him. “I don’t want to talk about her like she’s in the past. I don’t want to face the fact that every time we find her again, she’s not the Valda we loved.”
The doctor said nothing, instead, he began to stitch closed the slices in Andreas’ hand.
“She was right there, pushing at me, and I lashed out. Because it’s like talking to a stranger, until it isn’t.” He coughed and shook his head. Tears burned in his eyes, and his throat was scratchy. “I walked in on your moment…”
“She invited you to stay.” Oz spoke quietly, his nimble stitching barely noticeable. Andreas hurt everywhere.
“When have we ever done that?” They all loved her, and they’d all shared her—but their moments were their own. Individually.
Oz shrugged. “Doesn’t mean we can’t.”
No… “It wasn’t her. That woman wasn’t her.”
“Tell me something, Andreas. You know the soul. You did God’s work and walked the Earth. You tended to the sick, the indigent, and the dying. Why?”
“Because people needed someone to give a damn.” Sometimes, he questioned God’s existence. What if their very faith was a cosmic joke? A mental panacea to get through the horror of it all?
“Why did they need you?” The doctor pulled his attention back to him when he pulled a stitch hard and tied it off.
“Because they didn’t have anyone else to care. They needed a confirmation…a moment of peace, and to believe it would be better…” That was what he needed, too. He needed to know they could get her back. “Man, we’ve been doing this for years, and sometimes—she’s so close. She seems just like her, and other times…”
“I know.” Oz sighed. “But she is still her. Sometimes, she’s the her free of the weight of the world on her shoulders—in love with her science, and pursuing her goals.”
“The woman she was before any of us came into her life.” And why was it the coma erased only the parts of her life that involved them? Were they losing more each day she remained in that coma?
“What’s really bothering you, Andreas?” He’d finished and packed away the remaining supplies in the first aid kit. “You took off when she propositioned us, and then when push came to shove, you were ready to pull the plug early.”
Agony ached in his gut, burning holes like it was an ulcer. An ulcer borne of indecision and self-loathing. “Are we doing the right thing?” Even giving voice to the thought made him feel like a traitor. “We all want to save her. We don’t want to let her go. Are we really doing this for her? Or are we doing this for us?” A bunch of selfish pricks anchoring her to a world that may very well kill her the moment they saved her.
“I’m doing it because Valda didn’t give up on anyone. She worked until she collapsed. She worked until her eyes were so red, she couldn’t see. The only time she took breaks was when we lured her out. But if you think, for one moment, if it was one of us in there that she’d give up? Then you didn’t know her, man.”
Oz wasn’t wrong, but it didn’t assuage the churning in Andreas’ gut.
“I’d burn for her,” he said, without reservation or hesitation. “Every time we insert, it feels like a part of me burns away. If that’s happening to us, what’s it doing to her? What if we’re the reason she can never really be her again?”
Rising, Oz slung the pack over his shoulder and lifted his eyebrows. “Knock off the spiritual jujitsu. You’re scared. We’re all fucking scared. Got a better plan to save her? I’m all ears. I can keep her body alive, we can massage her muscles and help reduce atrophy. We can keep her lungs clear so she can breathe. But that machine is the only way I see to open the door for her…and I’ll whittle myself away to do it.”
Shame flooding him, Andreas lowered his head. “What if I’m not enough?”
Daring a glance at the other man, Andreas frowned. Oz grinned and spread his arms wide. “We’re who we are because of the road we took to get here. We were enough to do that, and we were enough for her to love. Now all we gotta do is love her back.”
The doctor gave him faith. “You say that like it’s easy to believe.” Damn, why couldn’t he believe so fiercely?
“I say it like it’s our only choice.” The raw response wedged against his chest and squeezed all the air from Andreas’ lungs. “We fight or we die. So which is it?”
Fight. It wasn’t even a question. Blowing out a breath, he clenched his wounded hand. “I want our girl back.”
“Me too. So let’s do this…preferably before Hatch and Dirk find us crying.” Not an ounce of discomfort reflected in Oz’s voice. Nor did he try to wipe away the tears on his face. Still damp from the shower, Andreas hadn’t even realized he’d been crying.
“Fuck, I miss her. And I hate this goddamn hour.” The hour during which the construct set, because they never knew what they’d find—or if they’d even fit.
“Me too.” Oz glanced at his watch. “We have time for a drink. Grab some pants.”
“Why?” He’d have to change in the Hexagon anyway.
Walking away, the doctor chuckled. “‘Cause your ass isn’t that pretty.”
This time when Andreas laughed, it soothed some of the jagged, broken pieces inside. “I’ll be right there,” he called. When the door in the outer room closed, he turned and knelt.
It had been a long time since he simply prayed, but right now—they needed all the help they could get.
With one minute to go, Hatch entered the Hexagon with Dirk only a half step behind him. Oz and Andreas were already present. The former massaged Valda’s calf muscle while the latter drank from a mug, a nasty cut on his right hand. Neither man spoke to him or Dirk, nor ceased in their motions.
A sense of déjà vu flashed over him, but Hatch ignored it. They’d repeated this moment dozens of times, and they’d do it a dozen more if necessary. Settling in before the main console, Hatch tapped the touchpad to bring them out of sleep mode. A timer flashed at the thirty second mark and continued to decrease. When he’d hijacked this piece, he’d made sure he took every part of the hardware, while at the same time, a virus inserted itself into the company’s corporate mainframe to harvest the software he needed to control it.
Proprietary programs on the cutting edge of an outlawed technology sector—well, outlawed in most countries. At the time, Belgium hadn’t decreed deep scientific study into mental reprogramming as a heretical crime. Too bad for the company that they’d built the full prototype in Singapore and they couldn’t report it, because they’d broken the law creating it.
Worked for him.
The designer had a good idea, however, he’d blended developments from a dozen different theories into a singular machine, which allowed them to create a controlled dreamlike state. The software actually allowed for subconscious reprogramming. If one ignored all the unsavory uses it could be put to—it was ideal for their purposes.
In his many travels, Hatch had seen the fracture of the human soul. Lives broken with pain, anger, and left to drown in grief. The three men standing behind him followed him along this shattered path, their faith in his idea helping to bring it to fruition. It had taken six months to calibrate it the first time.
And nearly a year from the horrible day they’d found her unconscious before he’d been able to look her in the eye again. It’s not real. But real enough. Locked away in her own mind, Valda waited for them. They just had to find the right path, the right code, and she would be free of that prison.
They were all holding their collective breath. Hatch typed the code into the screen, code he’d been considering throughout their last injection. The white walled rooms she conjured with her mind, their pristine orderliness, and their absolute lack of color were all a testament to the logical and orderly process of her mind. Brilliant, devoted, and filled with a conviction he couldn’t begin to understand.
But that was not all there was to Valda, and it was that disconnect—between the scientist and the woman, which was getting in their way. Like some modern Gretel with four very non-platonic Hansels, they needed to lay the breadcrumbs. Uploading the room with images of all the items she’d scattered through her home—rich vibrant colors, soft decadent fabrics, throw pillows, and sensuous artwork. They also spoke to her soul.
Finger hovering over the enter button, he weighed discussing it with the others first. It would take too long, and they might not agree. If the construct didn’t hold, they might have to wait another twenty-four hours to initiate positive cycle, or they ran the risk of causing brain damage. Unacceptable.
He hit enter. It was easier to ask for forgiveness than seek permission. If it worked, he’d need neither.
The code began to scroll as his changes implemented and each monitor began to illuminate. The flat line of brain activity began to flicker into gentle, beautiful waves as the machine initiated deep cortical stimulation.
“Heart rate normal, respiration in range.” Oz studied a different set of readouts. “Blood pressure stable.” Even with all the equipment, he shifted his hand to her ankle, then to her wrists and finally her throat. “Good radial pulse at all points.”
Brain activity continued to increase. The generated theta state brought her into active dreaming. Inside, she was waking up. Hatch split his attention from the screen to her face. The eyelids showed the barest hints of motion. Blowing out a breath, he transferred his focus to the readouts. Would the construct hold?
Steady reports filled the screen, the code beginning to scroll at speed, but every fifth—no, every tenth line, the new code began to appear.
“You always believe that humanity can be rational, even when they prove over and over they aren’t.” The echo of words he’d spoken to her so long before surfaced. Valda had been in her office, reading news reports coming in about some upheaval a half a world away. Her troubled expression had torn at him. “You behave as if your very existence depends upon that order…but hope isn’t about order or rationality…it’s about faith in the dark that the sun will come up in the morning, that winter will end, and that at some point, the rain will stop. Hope is survival, and it’s not rational.”
Green bars began to appear on one screen after another. The construct held. A new clock appeared above. Time marking 23 hours and 58 minutes.
“Sometimes, you have to live with that imbalance between the way you view the world and the way the world is.” Had he been angry when he said that to her? Or simply resigned? His heart wanted to hope for the latter, but they’d been debating his smuggling operation, an operation he’d put at her disposal to get her whatever she needed for her research. Ethics, as far as he was concerned, were the province of those who could afford to lose.
“You want me to listen to my heart?” The challenge in her voice raked across his soul. “Don’t you understand how impossible that is?”
He did. He always had. But then he’d gotten to know her heart, and understood the depth of feeling she possessed. “Listen to your heart, love. I do.” Her smile when he made such a bold proclamation filled him with warmth and renewed purpose all these years later.
Hang on, love. We’re coming.
“Fuck.” Oz’s sharp word jerked him around. What? What had he missed?