Excerpt: Just in Time

Just in Time by Kathryn Shay

Book 1: Portals of Time

Present Day 

The air in Dr. Jess Cromwell’s office stirred and the temperature in the room spiked. Sparks shot out from nowhere as the entire space crackled. And then, in front of him, on the old braided rug, little lights began to take shape. It was like molecules coming together. Right before his eyes, a human form materialized.

Jess blinked, thinking he must be going mad. But no, he saw this. Really saw it. Uh-oh. Not it. Them. After the first body, a second and third formed; three women had appeared, literally, in his Vista Institute office! The scene could have come out of a Star Trek episode where the transporter beamed people from one place to another. For an instant, the three of them stood stiffly, then one toppled to the ground, then the second, then the third.

“Oh, good Lord,” he said as he rushed to them. Mirage or no mirage, he couldn’t stand by and watch three people faint and do nothing.

Disentangling the women from each other—they were solid forms all right—he stretched them out flat on the floor. They were breathing, so he took their pulses first. Fast, really fast, but steady. There was no way to loosen their clothing; he could see no zippers or Velcro on their dull, gray tunics made of some light material, with trousers to match. He’d whipped out his cell phone to call the ambulance when one of them roused. She was the tallest, most muscular and toned. When her eyes opened, they were a startling, pure green. She blinked, like a cat watching a human.

“Greetings,” she said in a sleep-slurred voice.

Man, he was losing it. The woman had recited an alien’s line straight out of some science fiction movie.

When she sat up, she moaned, squinted and massaged her temples. “You are Dr. Jess Cromwell.” It wasn’t a question.

“Am I?”

Frowning, she scanned the room then nodded. “This is the desired location. I recognize it from the computeller screen.”

Just last week, Science Today, a magazine in which Jess had published several articles on his research, had run a photo shoot of him, and they’d included pictures of him in his office. The feature had been in print and online. Because he’d been getting quasi-threatening emails, his cop brother, Luke, had had a fit about the publicity.

At his hesitation, she asked, “Are these not the correct coordinates? In the year 2014?”

“Coordinates? 2014?”

Again, she nodded, just as the second woman shifted on the rug. This one came awake fast and bolted to a sitting position. When she opened her eyes, she glanced at her companions. “We made it, Dorian.”

“We did, Alisha.”

“I ache all over.”

This Alisha frowned. “As do I. Ignore it.” She faced Jess. “Cromwell, right?”

He shook his head. “I’m hallucinating. Helen said I would if I didn’t stop working so hard.”

“Helen is the spousal unit,” Alisha offered.

The bigger one, Dorian, looked past her friend with a worried expression. “Celeste is still unconscious.”

Alisha came to her feet shakily and swayed. Jess reached out just in time to catch her. Once again, she felt real enough. “Steady there.”

Frowning, she stared at his hand on her arm as if she wasn’t accustomed to being touched. Then she bent over her friend who was still out cold. “I wondered if she could make the jump, if she had enough stamina.” Sticking her hand into some sort of sack she carried—all three had similar black pouches looped around their necks—Alisha drew out what looked like a small tablet, but thicker. The device blinked and buzzed as she ran it above the prone woman’s body. “Vital signs normal. Brain activity erratic.”

Dorian nodded. “They always are on her.”

“No, the central Multimed examined her before we left so I’d have a baseline. These readings are different.”

“I hope she’s not too ill from temporal displacement. The jump would affect her the most.”

Jess said, “I can call nine-one-one.”

Alisha cocked her head. “Emergency medical care that arrives on wheels. Primitive life-saving efforts.”

“Excuse me?”

“We don’t need that.” Alisha turned to her cohort. “Help me get Celeste to the sitting conformer.” Though their movements were stiff, the two women picked up the unconscious one and carried her to the sofa as if she weighed nothing.

Dorian touched the cushion of the old leather couch that had once graced his family room and he sometimes slept on if he worked all night. “The furniture is hard. I forgot it would be.” They placed the unconscious woman—Celeste—on the sofa. “Uncomfortable.”

As if to underscore her words, Celeste shifted and moaned, like Dorian had.

Jess took a long look at them. If he was losing his marbles, he was going out smiling. The three of them were knockouts. Very fit. Thick manes of hair, short but beautiful. Nice eyes, nice features…nice everything. Again, Jess shook his head, blinked twice, but the women didn’t go away. For God’s sake, what was happening here? “Where did you come from? And how did you materialize in my office?”

Alisha stood beside Dorian. “Perhaps you should sit down for this.”

He watched her for a minute, then went to his industrial-steel desk, pulled out the chair and sat.

“Okay, hit me with it.”

“Why would we do him physical harm?” Dorian asked Alisha. “We’re here to protect him.”

This had something to do with the threats? Or was Luke jerking his chain? Jess might have believed that, except the women had formed out of nowhere, right before his eyes. Even his excellent cop brother couldn’t pull off that little trick. No one could and that included assassins. So he was probably safe.

Trying to stay calm, he asked, “How did you get here?”

“We traveled through a portal”—Alisha pulled out another thick tablet look-alike—“with this device. We’re from the future, Dr. Cromwell.”

He laughed. “Sure you are.” Blank looks. “You’re joking, aren’t you?”

“This isn’t some version of your twenty-first century humor. I assure you, we came from 2514.”

“Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”

Dorian straightened her shoulders. “Because, Dr. Cromwell, your research to stop carbon emissions which pollute the air may prevent the world’s end. However, at some point in the next two of what you call months, someone is going to kill you. We’ve come to prevent your death from occurring.”

 o0o

BECAUSE OF THE hammerjack pounding in her head, her sore musculature and the dizziness, Dorian breathed in deeply. She was weakened from the jump, which they’d anticipated would happen, but she wasn’t used to even a modicum of corporeal frailty. As head of the Institute for Physical Stamina, her life task was to keep the members of society at the apex of fitness.

Summoning her strength, she stepped closer to the man seated next to his work space. He looked different in real life than on the chips, where they’d viewed his image. He was smaller than she’d pictured and he had interesting lines fanning out from his eyes, though his age was close to hers. Men of this time period lost their hair and his was gone, which was truly odd to witness. And—she sniffed—his smell was unlike the males she’d joined with.

“Dr. Cromwell, I’m Dorian Masters. I assure you we’re telling the truth. It’s why we teleportaled here, into your work space. We wanted you to see us arrive so that we could convince you who we are and when we come from.” She held up her personal computeller. “There’s data on this machine that will prove our veracity—you will indeed be killed in a relatively short period of time.”

The man paled.

“He’s upset. And afraid.”

All three glanced across the room, where Celeste had roused and spoken. Her face was pale, her blue eyes bloodshot and she pressed her palm into her stomach. Dorian hoped she didn’t vomit.

Closing the distance between them, Alisha scanned Celeste with the first handheld device. “Brain’s still irregular, but physically, she’s fine.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say that.” When Celeste stood, she winced and wobbled a bit. After closing her eyes to regain her balance, she walked over to Cromwell. Her body was curvier than the others. “Hello, Dr. Cromwell.”

“You’ve got your stories straight, at least.”

“Stories?” Celeste asked.

“He doesn’t believe us.” Dorian didn’t blame him.

After a brief hesitation, Celeste picked up Cromwell’s hand. She shivered. As a sensitive, she could feel and sometimes take on people’s emotions. “He doesn’t know what to believe. He’s uneasy and frightened. We must show him the proof we carry.”

Alisha was already setting up her computeller. She placed it on the surface of the work space. “Enlarge screen.”

Dr. Cromwell was wide-eyed as the screen expanded to twenty-by-twenty. He said, “Holy shit.”

“Crude expletive combined with a religious term, which makes no sense,” Alisha commented. Then she ordered, “Reveal the fate of the inhabitants in 2514.”

Buzz. Whir. Click. Then the machine announced, “The world will end seventy-five years from the specified date.”

Cromwell’s skin was now ashen. “And you know this how?”

“Computeller, explain time travel to Dr. Jess Cromwell.”

“Society has the ability to project into the future, as well as backtrack into the past. Projection was approved for scientific purposes in the twenty-fourth century, but only by the Guardians and under strict regulations.”

“Who are the Guardians?” Jess asked.

“World leaders.”

“What did you find out when you went forward?”

The computer continued, “In our most recent experiments, we discovered some catastrophic facts. As of seventy-five yearlings after the date we traveled from, we hit a wall. No projection was possible beyond that.”

“Why?” Jess asked.

“Because, as was said, the world ends. Travelers were able to transport to the future right up until then. However, the events of the previous decade are cloudy. Test jumpers arrived but could not move beyond the portal. They could see only outlines, hear spoken language, no more than that. But in 2589, the researchers could not find even a portal that opens. The conclusion is the future society simply ceases to exist.”

Stunned silence from the doctor.

Alisha’s brows furrowed. “I helped determine this, Dr. Cromwell. I’m head of the Institute for Archeology which, for obvious reasons, works closely with the Institute of Temporal Studies on backtracking. I can assure you that our generation was the last.”

“Humankind dies off?” Jess asked. “Completely?”

Dorian nodded.

Alisha continued, “This explains why we’ve decided to come back in time and alter certain events in hopes of preventing annihilation.”

“And exactly what do I do to prevent this?”

“It will be best to show you.” To the computer she ordered, “Activate program on Dr. Jess Cromwell.”

“All data?” the computeller asked.

“Affirmative.”

The computeller clicked for several seconds. “Information available.”

They had hoped Cromwell’s scientific curiosity would make him amenable, and it seemed to. He rolled his chair closer to the computeller, his frown showing more of his eye lines. Absently, Dorian touched her cheek. She was glad for the advancements in aging that scientists of her time period had made, then chided herself for being vain when their mission was so serious.

“Jess Lucas Cromwell, born seventeen, oh-seven, 1970. Donors, Allison Leigh and Lucas Cromwell. Ritualized cohabitation on twelve, oh-four, 1965. First offspring, a brother, Lucas Cromwell, four yearlings before Jess. Donors’ life work: female was a teacher of science and male a NASA specialist. Offspring’s life work: first born, criminal justice and second, research scientist.”

The computeller proceeded to track Jess Cromwell’s life in text and videos. His schooling, his friends, his relationship with Helen Harmon, their ritualized cohabitation, his education.

Throughout it all, Cromwell’s frown grew more intense, and he started to sweat, something else Dorian had never experienced because of their temperature-controlled air. It was fascinating to watch tiny beads of water appear on his brow. “Anyone could know this about me from the Internet,” he finally said.

They were aware of the Internet and, now that they were in this time period, would use the network to create backgrounds for themselves once they got settled.

Celeste frowned. “He may not be ready to witness the rest.”

“We have no choice.” As usual, Alisha spoke without emotion. “Time’s running out, pardon the pun. Proceed,” she instructed the computeller.

“Jess Cromwell is murdered in 2014.”

“How?” Jess asked, his voice gruff.

“Vehicular accident. People of the time period call it a hit-and-run. That is when the perpetrator leaves the scene of a crime.”

“Damn. That sucks.”

Alisha shook her head. “Don’t look at me. I have no idea what that idiom means.” As an archeologist, she’d come along to acclimate Celeste and Dorian to this society. She was expected to know idioms and slang, but some terminology escaped her.

 “Poor Helen.” The man wiped his face with a white cloth taken from his pocket. “Christ. I’m starting to buy into this.”

Alisha gave a slight nod. “We’ll show you more to fully convince you.”

The computeller played videos of newsprint articles about Cromwell’s death. But there were omissions in the timeline because many of the chips from 2014 had become corroded. Consequently, they didn’t know the exact date of his demise. “I still can’t believe it.” He looked up at them. “How can I?”

“He needs more motivation,” Alisha said. “Let’s try this.” She forwarded ahead to events after his death.

Cromwell’s face reddened. “What the fuck?”

Fuck. A derogatory term for joining.

He glared at the screen. “I don’t have a daughter.” His pleasant, now-confused features hardened. “If this is some kind of joke, then it’s cruel, given how much Helen and I wanted a child and couldn’t have one.”

“You’ll have one, Dr. Cromwell.” Celeste’s voice was soothing. “By these calculations, your mate will conceive in her womb soon.”

“Now I know I’m having delusions.”

“Listen further.”

There was a snippet of a ceremony.

“Helen married somebody else?” His tone indicated umbrage, another thing Dorian didn’t understand. “How long after I’m gone?”

“Five yearlings…years.”

“I guess that would be okay.” He sighed. “Look, this isn’t proof. These videos could all be fabricated. It’s too unbelievable.”

“You died, Dr. Cromwell.” Alisha’s voice was curt. “And we believe the person who engineered your demise did so in order to preclude the completion of your research on the safe extraction of natural gas from the earth. Your findings led to a myriad of other developments in the eradication of carbon emissions from the environment.”

“Look, lady, if I died, somebody else would take up my research. As much as I’d like to think I’m indispensable, fracking is increasing our energy supplies, with a lot of big money behind it.”

“You’re incorrect. As I said, your research was special in its containment of methane emissions in a way no one else would discover. But the work you did was stopped by your death, and before someone else could pick up the threads or recreate it, a horrible environmental accident occurred and there was widespread contamination of the ground and water. Thousands of people were sickened or killed. All research on natural-gas extraction was halted, and soon after, the oil companies lobbied the governments of most countries and convinced them this area of energy drilling was too dangerous.”

“I’m so close to a breakthrough. Didn’t people care about what I left unfinished?”

“They were brainwashed, greedy and believed what was most beneficial for them. The dangers of climate change would just start to be taken seriously, and special interest groups would convince the population it was a hoax. That, and your fairly insane electoral process to choose leaders were corrupted so badly, the underminers were successful.”

“Dr. Cromwell,” Celeste said softly, “someone murdered you over your research.”

“My brother was right, then.”

“Your male sibling?” Dorian asked. “He’s in agreement with us?”

“Luke’s been telling me I’m in danger. I’ve been getting warnings.”

“Yes, through an archaic communicative method called email. To date, you’ve received four. Soon they will stop.” Dorian took pity on him. “It makes sense to conclude the sender has some connection with petroleum.”

“An employee of an oil company is warning me of this threat to my life?”

“The sender writes to you as watchingoutforyou@xmail.com.  He or she obviously knows someone intends to terminate you because of your research. Perhaps the sender is the one who must kill you if you don’t heed the warning.” Alisha hesitated. “This was his last bullet.”

“Excuse me?”

“I may have gotten the idiom wrong. His last…shot at stopping you?”

Sighing heavily, Cromwell leaned back in his chair.

Celeste crossed to him and knelt down. Again, she touched his hand. Again, she trembled. “We’re prepared to show you what the time where we come from holds, Dr. Cromwell.”

He cocked his head. “Is that why you want to save my life?”

“Yes, we believe that if you do not complete your research, the pollution of the future will spiral out of control, and mankind will be doomed.”

“My research prevents that from happening?” he asked again. He needed assurance.

“It’s the basis for other research, yes, that prevents future destruction.”

A slow smile spread across his face. “Man, I’d like to believe that.”

“Then let us convince you.”

Again he was thoughtful. “Wait a minute. Are you sure you can change the course of the future?”

“Ninety-nine point one percent sure,” Alisha quoted.

“Then what the hell? This is one great dream…a daughter, my research changing the course of history.”

“It will be if you don’t die,” Alisha said soberly. “If you do, that dream turns into a nightmare for all of humanity.”

                                                                       oOo

HIS FRUSTRATION LEVEL going through the goddamn roof, Luke Cromwell stared hard at his brilliant brother. He felt that way often with Jess, and had from the time they were young. “You’re kidding, right?”

Jess fidgeted. Now, when he was nervous, he worried the wedding band on his left hand. When they were kids, he’d scratched his head. “What’s the problem? You’ve been after me to do something about those emails, and I am.”

“Hiring a bodyguard without consulting your brother, who’s a Lieutenant in the Special Investigations Unit of the NYPD, is ridiculous. Why the hell would you do something like this without my help or at least my advice?”

His brother’s face flushed. “I didn’t. Vista Institute did. They fund my research, so I told them about the emails—after you got on me about them so much.”

Luke remembered the conversation…

You have a beautiful wife. Be a shame to leave her alone. Wise up, will you little brother? Let me track down these warnings or whatever they are.

His chin raised, Jess continued, “They’ve worked with her company before.”

The comment made his blood pressure spike. “Her? Your bodyguard’s female?  You’re going to spend all your waking hours with another woman? Oh, I’ll bet Helen will be overjoyed when she learns of the threats and of that little fact.”

Jess gave a goofy smile that Luke didn’t understand. “Helen will be fine once…” He didn’t finish, just crooked a shoulder. “She’ll worry less now that I have protection.”

“I was thinking of jealousy. The green-eyed monster.”

“Helen, jealous? Come on Luke, we’ve been together since high school. Why would I ever stray?”

Precisely because you’ve been together since then. But Luke didn’t voice that opinion. He knew he was overprotective of Jess, and also that his own failed marriage—thanks in part to that monster he’d mentioned—had made him cynical. Plus, Jess and Helen were closer than any couple he knew. Not being able to have kids had created a deep bond between them. “Let’s table that. What’s the new bodyguard’s training, background and skill level?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I told you, Vista took care of all this.”

“Then, I’ll find out. All I need is her name and date of birth to run a background check.”

“No, Luke, I don’t want you to interfere. The company’s concerned enough about me and my research that they’ve provided me protection. They’ve checked out her credentials. I don’t want you to go any further with her.”

Stung, he steepled his fingers. “Fine. You don’t trust my judgment, the hell with it.”

“I trust your judgment. But the situation is under control. Let it go.”

“Sure.” He pushed his chair away from the desk. “So, when do I get to meet her?”

“She’s outside. In the reception area.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, she started today. She got into town two days ago.” Jess stood and walked to the door. Before he opened it, he looked over his shoulder and said, “Be nice.”

Not on your life. “Always.”

Briefly, Jess stepped into the hall, then came back with his bodyguard. Jesus, this was worse than Luke had anticipated. The woman was super attractive. Not his type, though, because she was a little too tall and muscular—he liked his women petite and curvy—but she had a face that could stop traffic. Her hair wasn’t his preference, either—too short—but it shone under the overhead lights. Nice eyes…

“Dorian Masters, meet my brother, Luke Cromwell.”

She strode into the room stiffly, as if she was uncomfortable. Wearing a stark black suit with a crisp white shirt, she spoke first. “Lieutenant Cromwell.” She stuck out her hand, he took it, and she gripped his so tightly it would hurt a lesser man. “My pleasure is to meet you.”

“Yeah, you, too.” He drew back his hand. “Have a seat.”

Glancing around the office, she dropped down onto the chair across from Jess’s. She winced a bit when she sat and rubbed her fingers on the wooden arm. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes when she spoke to him. “Jess has told me a great deal about you.”

“Funny, he told me nothing about you.”

“Why is that humorous?”

Odd. “Just an expression.” Alerted by the strange comment, he studied her. “So, tell me your background. If you don’t mind, I’d like to know who’s watching over my little bro.”

A question in her eyes at his statement. “I anticipate you’re concerned about his welfare. I’ll inform you of my history. I was born in Virginia, which is just outside of Washington, D.C.”

No shit.

“Shortly after, my family moved to South America as missionaries. I attended a private boarding school there and spoke primarily Spanish. We returned to the United Amer…the United States of America when I was eighteen so I could receive further education.” She gave him the satisfied expression of a child who’d successfully recited her catechism. “When I completed eight yearl…years of education, I formed my own private protective agency, Masterminds, which was hired by the Vista Institute to guard Dr. Cromwell. He’s received warnings about his safety.”

Masterminds, as in Dorian Masters. Cute. “Warnings, which up until now, he ignored.”

Her dark brows knit. “I assure you those threats are real. He’s in grave danger.”

Luke held up his hands, palms out. “Hey, lady, you’re preaching to the choir.”

Though Dorian had no idea what that meant, she tried to hide it. Alisha had warned her not to show reaction to phraseology she didn’t understand. The idioms of this time period were going to be a problem. Dorian could never learn them all, so she had to ignore what she could.

However, she hadn’t anticipated keeping who she was a secret from Dr. Cromwell’s family. It had taken hours of re-explanation and review of the history chips, but once they convinced Dr. Cromwell who they were, he’d been adamant about secrecy…

“Helen will freak out if she hears I’m going to be murdered. We only have each other. She lost her parents at a young age, so my family took her in. And if she does get pregnant, I don’t want her upset by this. It’ll be bad enough when she finds out I kept the threats from her. We can’t tell her I’m going to die. We don’t have to, if you stop this…plot. We’ll just say you’re my bodyguard. Maybe later we can fill her in…”

“Dorian, Luke asked you a question.”

“Repeat please.”

He hesitated. “Why don’t you outline for me the way this is going to shake out.”

Oh, dear.

“We have a plan for protection all in place, Luke.” Jess was cuing her, she realized.

“We do. I’ll move into his spare sleeping space until the identity of the email sender and the plot against Jess is uncovered. I’ll accompany him to work and to other functions.”

“So his protection will be out in the open?”

Jess answered. “No, we’re going to say she’s Helen’s cousin and came here to take a job as my assistant in the lab.”

“And live with you?”

“She’s from out of town.” Under his breath, Jess said, “Way out of town. She doesn’t know anybody here.”

“What about going out at night?”

“We ought to be able to work the cousin thing in that way—we’re showing her around town.”

In his peripheral vision, she saw Luke watching her so she stifled the urge to fidget. She was used to dealing with powerful men in her life’s work. But she never truly understood them, because other than professional contact, and joining, of course, men and women of the future didn’t have interaction. As they apparently did in this time period, she’d learned from the chips.

“No offense, Ms. Masters, but I don’t like that I was left out of this decision.”

That decision had surprised her, too. She assumed they’d at least tell the brother, if not his spouse, and avoid more subterfuge. She’d suggested Jess do that…

“We should inform your sibling.”

“No. He’ll never believe you. If he didn’t see with his own eyes what I saw, he’ll doubt you. He’s always been the skeptic of the family. It’s why he’s a good cop. He’ll buy the bodyguard idea easier, believe me…”

“Ms. Masters?” the cop said now, bringing her back to the present.

“I’ll protect your brother with my life, Lieutenant. I swear on the godheads.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh. The term is from an ancient religion I follow.” She might have followed a religion if the universe hadn’t lost its faith, along with its air and ability to reproduce.

“Never heard that term.” The scowl made his face look older. It was a nice face, though, with interesting angles. And his brown eyes were deep and liquid, swirling with different shades. People of her time had pure colored eyes with no variation. His hair was cut shorter than the men of her time and a rich brown.

“Well,” he said with an angry glance at his brother. “I guess I have no choice but to accept you. For the record, Jess, I wish you’d done it all differently.”

Smiling, Jess answered. “We’ll be fine.”

“I assume, now that you agree you’re in danger, you’ll let me investigate the warnings in an official capacity.”

Jess looked to Dorian for confirmation. She nodded.

“Yeah, sure,” he said. Then to her, “Now, shall we go home and tell Helen about all this?”

“That’s acceptable to me.”

Luke stood. “Mind if I come along? I’d like to see Helen’s reaction.” More quietly he added, “I’m sure there’ll be hell to pay, too.”

Jess agreed, but Dorian could tell he wasn’t happy about his brother accompanying him. Neither was she. Her bodyguard status had annoyed the sibling. And she didn’t need Celeste’s powers to tell her that Lucas Cromwell, Jr. was going to be a problem.

o0o

ON THE TRIP to Jess’s dwelling, Dorian sat in the front seat of the auto vehicle trying to breathe only through her nose. The bumpy ride caused her stomach to pitch, and the stink of the gasoline made her gag. No wonder the world had succumbed to covering entire regions with Domes in the future. The bombardment of poisons emitted daily into the atmosphere from hundreds of thousands of vehicles was horrendous.

“You okay?” Jess asked. “You’re white as a ghost.”

“The smell and movement is causing me distress.”

“I’ll bet. You obviously don’t have cars.”

“No, moving walks get us from place to place, and we use air cycles run on crystals for emergencies when we must travel farther, which doesn’t happen often.”

“Your description of the future is unbelievable.”

She gestured to encompass the vehicle. “So is this. To me.” She glanced out the aperture. Despite the smell of the car, what she saw there still amazed her. Daylight. And sun—glorious, warm sun—which had been totally obscured by her time period.

After they’d arrived in Jess’s office the previous revolution (a total anachronism because they had no sun) and convinced Jess of who they were, they’d walked down from his office to what he called a hotel. Nighttime out of inside had been surreal; people actually walking around in the air was totally foreign to them, though they were accustomed to darkness. But they’d been weakened by the jump and could not fully take in the situation. He’d gotten them a group of rooms called a suite, where they could rest. Only this dawning (another irrelevant term carried over from earlier times) had they actually seen real grass and trees, and gone out of inside to feel the warm rays of the sun. Celeste had come close to leaking moisture from her eyes, she was so moved by their surroundings.

Finally, Dorian and Jess completed the trip. When they drew up to his residence, her mouth gaped. “I’ve never seen a dwelling so big.” She almost couldn’t take in the multiple-level living space for only two people.

“We inherited the place from Helen’s parents. It is big, I guess. A lot bigger than the hotel you three are staying at.”

They’d secured the…rooms with the currency from the diamonds they’d brought with them. In their time, the gems were on display at the Ancient Galleries but had little value. Today, the opposite was true, as they’d researched. Jess had gone to trade the stones in exchange for the current currency in a region called Manhattan, which had not yet imploded on itself and sunk into the water as it would in the twenty-second century.

Once they stopped and exited the vehicle, they entered into the eating space of the dwelling. Kitchen, Dorian corrected herself. And the auto-vehicle space was in a garage. She’d been trying to think in their terms, but she was still weak from temporal displacement and her mind was not yet functioning with acuity.

“Honey, I’m home.” Jess called out the strange message and placed the auto vehicle’s starting device into a container on a shelf; she followed him farther into the room. Immediately, her stomach roiled again. The smell in here was so intense, she became nauseous.

“Are you all right?” Jess asked.

She pinched her nose. “The smell…”

He sniffed. “Mmm, spaghetti sauce. Haven’t you had it before?”

“No. We have no food, as you know it, in my time.”

“What?

“Natural resources ran out near 2200. Survival depends on water drilled from the earth’s core by robotic means, purified and distributed in carefully meted dosages. Nourishment is taken in tablet form, three times a day, with vitamin content and nutrients measured for age, body height and weight and muscle mass.”

“Aw, wow. What a shame.”

“Why?”

Even his eyes smiled. “Wait until you take a taste of supper and you’ll find out.”

Her stomach contracted at the thought.

A door slammed, and Luke stepped into the kitchen right behind Dorian. This close, he seemed bigger than he had when he’d been seated behind his work space…desk. He was taller than she’d first determined, and his shoulders were wide under his clothing. She noticed how muscular his chest area was. He was an interesting male specimen. “Hey, guys. Where’s Helen?”

“I don’t know. School’s finished for the day, and her car is here. I’ll go upstairs and check.” He glanced at Dorian. “You okay?”

“Yes.”

“Have a seat at the table.”

Dorian went into the dining space off the kitchen, trying to cover her shock at the real wood that was everywhere. She’d never seen wooden floors, box-like things that held utensils, and more wood around the apertures…windows, they were called. She dropped down on a chair, still surprised at its hardness. It made her derriere sore and she missed the conformers.

When Jess left, Luke didn’t lower himself to sit. Instead, he leaned against a wood box with a shelf made of what looked like real stone and stuck his hands in his pockets. He wore brown clothing with little white stripes through it, a white shirt and blue neck cloth. The outfit appeared extremely uncomfortable, like the one she was forced to wear. Jess had purchased scratchy, impractical items for her. She much preferred the two-piece gray tunic and trousers people of her time dressed in.

Not particularly wanting to be around him, she gave him a perfunctory smile.

“So,” he said, his suspicious tone alerting her to focus. “Tell me why the company chose Masterminds to guard Jess.”

“I’m in peak condition, I have an IQ of one hundred and eighty-nine, and expertise in weaponry.”

“And you speak oddly.”

Knowing their speech patterns might not be in sync with the time, before the jump, they’d discussed with the Guardians how to handle the issue. “As I told you, I was raised in another country, a more primitive culture. I was bilingual but didn’t speak English for a long time. My speech patterns aren’t like yours.”

“Yet you don’t have an accent.”

“I’ve perfected English.”

Those dark eyes bored into her. “I have to tell you, Ms. Masters, something about you bothers me.”

“I’m aware that chauvinism is prominent in society, Lieutenant Cromwell. But you have female police officers, don’t you?”

“Hell, yes. Some of our best cops are women.”

“Then, you object to me why?”

“Because, lady, you just don’t ring true.”

Lady? It must be a derogatory term, because Jess had also used it that way when they first arrived.

“Hello.” The wire mesh on the huge opening of the wall adjacent to Dorian slid back and in stepped Helen Cromwell. Dorian had seen her in the chips, but still, she had to force herself not to gawk as the woman came inside. She was as petite as a youngling, no more than five feet tall. Her features were so delicate that she appeared…breakable. And light reddish hair reached down her back almost to her hips. How did the woman even survive with such fragility about her?

“Hi, beautiful.” Luke stepped forward and brushed his lips over her cheek. Dorian knew males and females here had contact outside of joining, but she thought that happened only between mates.

“Hey, handsome.” She looked at Dorian, her eyes widening and her smile brighter. “You finally brought a woman to meet us.”

“Ah, no, Jess brought her here.”

A slight frown.

“There you are.” Jess entered the room, and when his gaze rested on Helen, his face transformed, causing Dorian to take in a quick breath. He enveloped his spouse in a kind of embrace Dorian had only felt with a man in joining. He smacked his lips with hers. “Hello, love.”

They kept arms around each other’s waists. It was fascinating.

“Luke says you brought…” She looked at Dorian. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”

“Dorian Masters.” Dorian extended her hand and took Helen’s. Her bones were also fragile; Dorian was afraid one would snap with too much pressure, so she squeezed lightly.

“Let’s sit, honey. I need to talk to you.”

The three of them occupied confor…chairs around the table. Luke stayed where he was.

“There are some things you don’t know.” Jess held Helen’s hand in both of his, the gesture tender. “Some things I haven’t told you.”

“Really?”

Jess explained briefly about the emails.

When he’d finished, Helen raised her chin, and her face reddened. Dorian knew that to be from emotion. “And you didn’t tell me any of this? I wasn’t aware we kept secrets, Jess.”

“I’m sorry. I felt it was best.”

The woman looked to Luke. “You knew about the threats?”

He squirmed like younglings did on the chips. “Um, yeah.”

Throwing back her chair, Helen stood. She didn’t seem so slight anymore. She crossed to the bowl in the shelf—the sink—and turned a metal mechanism. Even though Dorian had experienced it at the hotel, she was still stunned to see actual running water come out of a spigot and how the extra that didn’t go into the glass was squandered.

After Helen had sipped the drink, she faced them. “I’m furious with you both. We’ll have to deal with that at some point. Right now, tell me the rest.”

Jess was visibly upset, but he explained that Vista Institute had hired him a bodyguard. “They chose Dorian.”

A brief arch of an eyebrow. “I see.” The woman studied Dorian. “And you’re the best they have, Ms. Masters?”

“Yes, Mrs. Cromwell, I am.”

“Good.” She returned to the table. “Tell me how this will work. I’ll do anything to help keep Jess safe.”

Sighing, Jess reached out for her hand. Helen drew it back. “You’re not getting off this easily, Jess. You either, Luke. But we’ll put that aside for now.”

Dorian had just finished the outline of how the body guarding would work when someone out of inside came up to the wire mesh on the wall. With something alongside of him.

“Mrs. Cromwell, my mother said—” The speaker stopped. “Oops. Sorry, we didn’t know you had company.”

This time, Dorian did indeed gawk.

Because, though she’d viewed the chips of this, too, she’d never actually seen a living, breathing youngling…or a real drog.


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