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by Dawn Kimberly Johnson
Category: Gay Fiction/Romance
Description: Two weeks from his thirtieth birthday in the year 2020, Temporal Agent Charleston Meeks Jr. is assigned to work for his father on a special project. The government's Restore Point Program sends small teams back in time to save the life of one person, just once, but Charleston's father wants to explore what would happen if the RPP intervened in the life of one person repeatedly. Charleston is tasked with saving the same child, Barnaby Rosenthal, from a series of events from birth through his teens. When Charleston approaches his terminal step--the last temporal trip an agent can make before possibly suffering permanent damage--his father forbids any further contact, but Charleston has too much invested in Barnaby to give up. A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2012 Daily Dose package ""Time Is Eternity"".
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2012 2012
eBookwise Release Date: July 2012
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [60 KB]
Reading time: 33-46 min.
* * * *
* * * *
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 decor--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."
"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.
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.
"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.
* * * *
I quickly set my clothes to rights as I reached the front of the market so I'd appear calm and simple-shopper-like as I walked in. I saw quite a few customers carrying small, red hand baskets with wire handles and quickly grabbed one of my own from a stack by the entrance. I needed to blend in as well as possible. Wouldn't want anyone remembering me. I'd even managed to avoid ruining anyone's dinner when I ran out of the men's room, into a waitress, through the kitchen, and out the back door of the restaurant. It had been busy for a Monday.
I scanned the collection of shoppers while pretending to select fruit in the produce section. There were a few male-female couples, one or two men on their own buying the standard bachelor fare, but mostly I saw women, either on their own or with little ones in tow. I didn't, however, see tiny Rosenthal anywhere, and I could almost hear a ticking in my head as time flowed around me.
Then I saw a young woman lift a can of beets off a shelf and appear to suddenly remember something. There was something familiar about her, but more than anything, she reminded me of Anne Bancroft--sexy like The Graduate instead of prim like The Miracle Worker--in jeans, a flannel shirt, and sneakers, if you could imagine, with the same large dark eyes and wavy black hair. I watched her, wondering if she'd simply forgotten to pick up some bread. But then she began looking around at her feet, raising her gaze to look further down the aisle, then up the aisle. Her gaze met mine, and I saw a tiny flicker of panic behind her eyes, but she quickly brushed it away and started walking away calling for... "Barnaby?"
I dropped my basket and ran for the back of the store. Meat section. Fewer witnesses. I came tearing out of the cereal aisle and turned left. I saw a big man, linebacker-size, bigger than me, walking purposefully for the side door dragging a very unhappy Barnaby Rosenthal behind him. The kid was fighting for all he was worth and just starting to shout, "Bad man! Bad man!" when the perp scooped him up and covered his mouth, kicking open the door with his foot and disappearing through it.
I was through a second later, in time to grab the guy's jacket collar and spin him around. Startled, he dropped Barnaby, who scooted away from us, pressing his back firmly against a Dumpster, frozen.
"Kid, go inside and find your mother!" I shouted. As I struggled to hold onto the "Bad Man," Barnaby just stared up at me in wide-eyed terror. "Go!" I shouted, causing him to jerk as if I'd slapped him, which I immediately regretted. But he scrambled up and ran back through the door.
Now what to do with--
I felt a sharp pain in my side followed by warmth soaking my shirt. Oh yeah. Forgot about the knife. Bad Man had used it to carve up Barnaby when he was done with him. But I held on until I could regain enough breath to knuckle him in the throat (knife dropped, eyes wide, gasping, hands clutching his neck in shock and fear) and then I broke his nose, the crunch delightfully satisfying. Linebacker or not, I know my shit. I smiled as his eyes rolled up into his skull, and he dropped to the pavement like the steaming sack of crap he was. My pleasure was short-lived, however, when my side cramped hard enough to bring me to my knees.
"Hey, you!" someone shouted from the parking lot. "What's going on back there?" I heard footsteps approach. "Holy shit! Mister, you're bleeding." I heard those same footsteps running away and a fading voice yelling, "Somebody call the police!"
On my knees, nearly breathless, spots dancing before my eyes as I examined the divots and contours of the asphalt beneath my hands, I heard a soft gasp and looked up to find little Barnaby peering at me. Most of his face was hidden by the door as if he could only risk the one brown eye and pudgy right hand I could see. I smiled at him just as the alarm on my watch sounded, and I found myself on my knees back in the Portal room.
* * * *
It wasn't as bad as it felt. I woke up in hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a nurse strolling by my chamber, monitoring the readings. When she saw I was awake, she gave me a grin and a wave, then turned and left the room. My eyes drifted closed until I was startled by my father's booming voice.
"How are you feeling, boy?" he asked in a surprising, softer tone.
"The wound wasn't that deep, more of a slice than a stab, really, so we slathered you with MEDIHONEY and dropped you in here." He slapped the glass of the hyperbaric chamber a couple times, the sharp clatter of his wedding ring reverberating within. Yay for me.
I nodded. The HBOT and drugs would have me good as new in a day or so. "How are you, sir?"
He seemed thrown by my question. "Me? I'm fine," he said, casting around and grabbing a pale-green plastic chair to pull up next to me, "but I came by to give you the full briefing you should have gotten before you left. I apologize for the rush."
"No worries. I saved the kid, managed not to kill the perp, and got out of there."
"Rosenthal saw you go."
I frowned in concentration. "Oh, yeah. Curious little tadpole, wasn't he?"
"A lot like you were at that age," he said, nodding. And then he smiled, a faraway look in his eyes.
"Pop, I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner--"
He held up a hand. "No. I don't want to talk about that." He sighed upon seeing my expression. "Not now, Junior, alright? Later. We have a lot to do."
I quieted and waited, trying not to let the anger and disappointment overwhelm me.
"This special project is one I've been pondering for a while," my father said. "As you know we normally restore one person, just the once. But I've often wondered... what would it be like to intervene repeatedly on one target?" He leaned closer to the glass of my chamber, his blue eyes flashing with excitement--sort of mad scientist-like. I shrugged as best I could in my position. "In truth, Junior, I was able to launch this experiment because of your... mistake during your last step."
"That's right." The delight on my father's face was almost comical. How many fathers are thrilled with a son's screw-up?
My team and I had been sent in to save the life of a young bank teller during a robbery back in 1993. On our way out of the bank, heading to our recall point, I heard a woman scream, and a baby stroller went flying by me. Admittedly without thinking, I chased it down and stopped it from rolling into traffic. Her shopping bags forgotten on the sidewalk, she caught up to me, and upon seeing her baby was safe, promptly fainted. I was instantly recalled.
"Stopping that stroller gave Rosenthal six additional years," my father said, "and today you gave him another eight."
"Yes. With each intervention we extrapolate the effect Rosenthal has on our timeline. So far, there have been no significant shifts, therefore, two days from now, you're going back in. This one's a bit more complicated, may take some finessing, so I've uploaded his file to date on the HBOT's reader. According to our algorithms, a successful conclusion with this trip should put Rosenthal safely in college."
He hauled himself out of the chair and headed for the door. I watched him go, then turned to look at the ceiling of my chamber, activating the file. At least I have some reading material. It was a second before I realized my father had paused at the door.
He sighed. "Junior, I know the world is comfortable with things it didn't used to be comfortable with, and you'd think I would be ahead of the curve, but... but I guess I was just surprised. Not unhappy, exactly, with your news. It's just--Hell, Junior, you'll be thirty in a couple weeks, and it's difficult for a parent to hear their child didn't feel he could be honest with them for so many years."
Damn. I should have told my parents when I'd figured it out... like, fifteen years ago. I like men. Three little words at dinner some night would have taken care of it.
He looked into my eyes, so much like his, from across the room. "It made us wonder what we did to make you think you couldn't share that with us sooner." He lowered his gaze to the floor, the same place my heart was at the moment. Then he laughed. "I guess parents second-guess themselves no matter what, huh?"
I smiled weakly, aching for making him feel that way. I don't know why I had waited so long to tell them. I'd grown up in California, and from ages ten to eighteen, I'd heard a lot of anti-gay rhetoric bandied about, almost like background noise. I had watched my parents, both highly educated and reveling in the nerdy, but I'd never heard them express an opinion on gay rights. It just wasn't something on their radar. Hell, their son dating anyone wasn't on their radar, so I was happy to work the omission angle. Then the Restore Point Program was launched and based in a certain Midwestern state that-must-not-be-named--where we all moved, where I went to college, and which was not the most progressive-thinking community.
My father took a deep breath, his barrel chest expanding and stretching his lab coat. "Perhaps your mother and I should have made an effort to be more... aware during your formative years." He jabbed his finger at me. "Just remember, we love you, have always been proud of you, and want nothing more than your happiness."
He quickly left then, which is fine because I was rendered speechless by his... his... well, outburst, really. That was an emotional outburst from my father, and I was trapped inside a glass tube, unable to throw my arms around him.
I grinned. Perfect timing, as always, Pop.