Chapter 1

 

 

“YOU’RE joking.”

I looked from the data tablet in my hand to Team Leader Leaundra’s beautiful face, her flawless dark skin, flashing dark eyes—more glint off a razor than twinkle—and knew she most certainly was not joking.

“But TRD?” I asked.

Her gaze fell back to her computer screen. “The creepies down in Turd are running some special project and need a field agent to abuse.” She glanced back up at me. “And that, Meeks, would be you. Be glad you’re back in the action, kid.” My superior’s fingers resumed flying over her keyboard. I had been dismissed. I turned and exited the office, opening the file on the tablet as I headed for the elevator.

On my way to the basement I read:

Barnaby Rosenthal, born in Chillicothe, Ohio, Jan. 18, 1992: went missing from Seney Road Market, Monday, April 10, 1998.

I grimaced, looking over what they had found left of the boy a week later in Great Seal State Park. A small gasp from my left reminded me I wasn’t alone in the car, and I folded the tablet to my chest, away from the prying, and apparently sensitive, eyes of the gentleman next to me. He exited two floors above my destination, leaving me alone… alone to wonder why I had been reassigned… and to the basement, of all places.

I supposed it could be further punishment for my slip-up on my last assignment. A tiny part of me wanted to hope that my father had…. But I beat that down.

The doors opened onto a long, poorly lit corridor of reinforced concrete. Not much for comfort, these creepers in the basement. As I rushed toward the matte gray double doors at the end of the hallway, my thoughts filled with images of damp earth, moss, and scuttling insects fleeing the sun. I don’t know if that came from my current surroundings or where little Rosenthal had ended up.

When I yanked open the doors of Temporal Research and Development, I was struck by two things: a light so bright I threw my arm up to shield my eyes, and a petite, disheveled lab-coated woman. She had short black hair and smelled of cherries.

“Oh! Agent Meeks. I was just coming for you.” She righted herself and smoothed her coat. “This way, please,” she urged.

“I’ll follow,” I said, gesturing for her to lead the way. And she did. She took off at a lope, turning down one hallway and then the next. Every hall looked the same to me—bright, shiny, slick, and white—nothing distinguishing one corridor from another, like a whiteout in a snowstorm. My previous assignments had taken place in another part of the complex which had a much more dramatic, military feel to the décor—not quite so Star Trek-kie. “What exactly is the rush?”

“They received approval for this project just last night, and we’ve been given a two-week deadline for completion.”

We rounded yet another corner, and I knew I’d never find my way back out again.

“Here we are,” she said, pointing to a door that might have been a different shade of white, though my eyes could have been playing tricks on me by that point. “They’ll take you through, get you suited up and off. Normally, as you know, we’d have a full briefing before you launch, but we’re close to missing this restore point as is, so this is rather urgent.”

I nodded, hiding, I’m sure unsuccessfully, my annoyance at this last-minute op. Lack of preparation leads to mistakes. The door slid open to reveal two more lab-coated types waiting for me: a short, round woman in wire-frame glasses and a tall, lanky man with light-brown skin and a head of tight gray curls—sort of Boris and Natasha in reverse, if I was remembering my classic animated serials correctly. I started through the door but paused, turning back to my sweet-smelling escort, who looked ready to bolt back to whatever other hundred or so things she had up in the air at the moment.

“What’s your name, kid?”

Tapping her foot, she quickly unwrapped a lollipop to suck on. “Jeri.”

“Cherry?” I asked, surprised.

She grinned and removed the sucker from her lips with a barely audible pop. “No, sir. Jeri. Jeri Sato. Good luck.” She ran off.

 

 

“YOU’VE read the file?” Shorty asked, tossing me a folded pile of clothes, circa 1998, I guessed.

“As much as I could on the ride downstairs.” I stripped out of my uniform and pulled on jeans, but in the mirror, I saw a frown ghost across Lanky’s narrow face as he stood behind me fussing with my hair. “Something wrong?”

Our eyes met briefly in the reflection, and he said, “I don’t like rushed ops.”

“Ditto.”

“And don’t you agents normally have shorter hair?” he asked, grimacing again as if he were rooting through a pile of shit.

“The guys I date like to run their fingers through it.” Lanky’s fingers froze in midstyling, and his eyes, narrowing, once again met mine in the mirror. I sighed and tugged a T-shirt over my head. Believe it or not, in the year 2020, some folks still had a problem with my sexuality. Even my parents’ chilly reaction had surprised me when I’d finally come out to them a month ago. All trepidation aside, I think, deep down, I’d always expected better from them.

“I’m sure it gives them something to get a good solid grip on,” Shorty said, making a fist with one hand and handing me a pair of work boots with the other. She winked, and we smiled at each other as I sat down to put them on. She tapped the data tablet in her hand and said, “You’ll have a window of twenty minutes to stop the event before you’re recalled. Try to be out of sight before that happens, understand?”

I nodded, intent on my lacing. “I’m surprised we’re going back so far.”

“It is close to our thirty-year limit, but we’ve stepped slightly farther back than this without significant or recordable detriment to the timeline. Hell, you went back twenty-seven years on your last step.”

I wasn’t interested in discussing the step I’d botched. I stood up and stomped both feet to make sure the boots would be my most comfortable new friends.

“Let’s walk and talk, shall we?” she asked.

I followed her out of the locker room. Lanky had mysteriously vanished, and I smiled to myself.

“Where did our shadow go?”

“Who knows?” she asked without lifting her gaze from her tablet. “He’s in the middle of a divorce and moody. I’m guessing he’s already hiding in his office.”

We walked down yet another long hall to a sliding door guarded by… well, two big bad guards, dressed in black, fit, fierce, and… handsome, if you like that brutish look. My eyes met theirs, and we each nodded, acknowledging a brotherhood of combat.

I felt a slight vibration through the floor and a change in the air pressure as we neared the entrance. Shorty raised her voice and said, “You’ll land in the men’s room of an Olive Garden. Your target site is directly behind the restaurant, so you’ll need to get out of there and over to the market quickly.”

I opened the map file on my tablet and studied the restaurant’s relation to the market, then the layout of the market interior itself, while Guard A pressed Shorty’s thumb to a scanner. She got the green light, as did I, once I’d been checked. The door hissed open, closing unnervingly fast behind us.

We stood in a cavernous room, though smaller than the Major Operations Unit I’d previously traveled through with my old team. My old team… my former team. I had expected to retire instead of getting another assignment, especially after my previous step. A temporal agent can only make a finite number of steps in his career, because after that the old mortal coil starts to… uh, fray around the edges, so to speak.

I had been making plans to relax on a beach somewhere when I’d gotten the call to report. My mother had hoped I would settle into a desk job and give her grandchildren, but I’d shot that idea down with my little announcement. I told her, as she tried not to cry, that I might find Mr. Right someday, and we could adopt or find a surrogate. I told her not to write off grandkids just yet. That seemed to cheer her up ever so slightly.

I scanned the room quickly as Shorty and I walked. A bank of computers and their operators adorned a long black table in the center of the room. In front of them stood a Portal, again smaller than the one in Major Operations.

“I need a picture of the boy… you know… before. It wasn’t in the file,” I said.

“Sorry. Data’s being updated as we go. The last photo his mother snapped should be there now.”

I checked my tablet and there he was, his young face smiling out at me, large chocolate-brown eyes, head full of dark curls, missing two front teeth. He was in pajamas, sitting on a carpeted floor, and rolling a yellow dump truck over some hapless toy soldiers. Nice. Not a military man, I see. It was difficult to reconcile that bright pudgy face with the desiccated remains I’d viewed earlier.

“What about the perp?”

“No images of him, I’m afraid. Find the boy and stick to him for as long as you can.” She stopped and turned in front of me. “It could be as simple as the perpetrator seeing you and moving on—”

“To someone else… someone else’s child.”

We stared at each other, and Shorty frowned. “Agent Meeks, we restore. We do not delete, no matter how toxic someone may be. Those are the rules.” She watched my face, trying to read behind my eyes. “You’ve been doing this long enough. Surely you’ve faced similar moral complexities before.”

I shook my head. “Never a child. Never.”

She sighed. “How many steps do you have left?”

“After this one? Three. Honestly, I thought I was done. Didn’t think I’d be called up again, but I’m happy for the chance not to end my career on a mistake.”

Shorty nodded. “As I understand it, your father specifically requested you.”

“He did?” I knew she could see the “what the fuck?” on my face.

She glanced at her watch and then the big clock on the wall. “I’m sorry. We have to go.” She grabbed my sleeve and tugged me along after her to the bank of technicians. “We’ll give you the full briefing when you return, as this project will continue if you succeed.”

“No ‘ifs’ about it,” I said confidently.

“You have twenty minutes to save Rosenthal. Try not to snap anyone’s neck in the process.”

I passed her my tablet and moved into position as the hum in the room increased.

A buzzer sounded three times, and a speaker above our heads crackled to life.

“Standby!”

“Breaching plane!”

I felt my ears pop, and then the noise in the room seemed to cease as an image began to form in the Portal, a wavy picture like a vintage television screen viewed through a gauzy curtain.

“Men’s room clear!”

It always amazed me how peaceful this time-travel thing turned out to be. I’d grown up watching movies and reading books about it, and in those it was always a violent, loud, destructive, seemingly catastrophic event to cross over, to crack such a barrier. It could vaporize you or freeze you or just flat-out stop your heart if not handled right. But I remembered my father, the brilliant temporal mechanic Charleston Meeks Sr., laughing and ridiculing the premises in those stories I enjoyed so.

“That’s not how it is, Junior!” he had bellowed. “Trust me.” And he’d been right. It was as simple as stepping into another room—emptying your lungs, of course—but just as easy a task. He’d worked it all out. And he was why the Restore Point Program existed. He created the rules and made sure his underlings, those who presented potential major ops, were equally balanced with scientists for the workings, humanists for the goals, and soldiers for the execution. His core team kept the manipulative fingers of opportunists out of the system.

Major Operations usually sent a team of two to three agents back in time to save the life of one person, just the one, who the temporal extrapolators deemed “a potential” or most able to make a significant, positive contribution to our existence. After all, this was about a better world for everyone, a world with room for all to live their lives as best they could. Everyone gets to play. Everyone gets a shot at the brass ring—or, in some cases, two shots.

I raised my arm to read my watch and sync it with the big clock on the wall.

“Go!”

“Twenty minutes!” I heard Shorty shout as I emptied my lungs and stepped through, emerging into the middle of the men’s room at the Olive Garden.