Short story excerpt

As I mentioned last Monday, I have a new short story coming out called One Constant. It’s part of Dreamspinner Press’s Time Is Eternity collection, which, if you  purchase the package, delivers a story a day to your bookshelf. Or you could buy the stories individually beginning June 1. Following is the description and an excerpt from One Constant.

Blurb: 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.

Excerpt:

“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.

*****

On another note:

This Thursday, that’s May 17, I will be participating for the first time in the Hop Against Homophobia. I’ll be giving away an eBook copy of any of my books to one lucky person who leaves a comment between Thursday and Sunday. Tell me what you think of the post, relate a story about homophobia you’ve experienced or witnessed or defeated, or just say hi, and I will draw a name from the folks who comment. The winner will be announced on Monday, May 21.

Hope to see you at the Hop!

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