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An Excerpt From: TIME SLIP
Copyright © CAROLINE MCCALL, 2011
All Rights Reserved, Ellora’s Cave Publishing, Inc.
“Good morning, Captain, the General is expecting you.”
I bet she is. Strom’s anger simmered just below boiling. A sleepless night in a lumpy bunk at the flight station hadn’t helped, and the anti-rejection meds for the new arm were making him feel nauseous. Pete had commed him several times during the night to apologize, but it wasn’t Pete’s fault. He knew that he had overreacted, and he hated when anyone got under his skin.
General Hallstrom sat behind the antique desk; her face was cool and expressionless, as usual. He sat down without being invited and lounged back in his chair, knowing that his disrespect would irritate her almost as much as if he called her mom. He would save that one for when he really wanted to piss her off. Strom’s eyes took in the chestnut hair, folded into a neat chignon, and the pristine uniform, which barely showed a crease. The bitch must sleep standing up.
Leona regarded him patiently, as if he was a particularly tiresome child. The reality was that she was barely five years older than him.
“I wanted to speak to you privately before the meeting. I hope that you won’t let our personal relationship interfere with the mission.” Her expression was friendly, but guarded.
His eyes narrowed. So Leona was afraid that he would damage her precious reputation. “I never let anything interfere with the mission.”
Strom detected a flicker of hurt in her expression, but he ignored the brief spasm of guilt. If Leona wanted to play at being friends, she could wait ‘til Pluto melted. “Let’s get this briefing over with.”
The mission-advisory team consisted of three temporal agents, two nerds who specialized in temporal probability studies, and an aging historian and twenty-first-century cultural analyst. He seemed to be the only muscle—the rest of them wouldn’t know one end of a weapon from the other. If this was a geek outing, what did they want with him? If he agreed to take on this mission for Leona, he would insist on having his own team with him. Strom sat back and waited.
“First, how about we have a quick revision session on temporal mechanics?” Leona looked pointedly at Strom.
“The simplest way to consider time is to imagine it as a tree-like structure with an infinite number of branches, in which the future is not yet determined. We know that a great number of factors can affect the outcome. At the Department of Temporal Security, we work to minimize any interventions which would have an adverse impact on the time line we live in.”
She paused, taking a sip of water. “We also monitor incursions into the past for illegal or terrorist purposes. Com, dim lights please, and display file.”
The room darkened and the overhead screen lit up with the image of a man, Raoul Jasson, one of the most notorious Cyraelian terrorists. His clothes and hair might have been old fashioned, but Strom would recognize that face anywhere. The images flashed by—London, New York, Paris, Rome and finally Dublin. The MO was the same in all cases. He presented himself as a security specialist to international museums, relieved them of their most prized portable treasures, replacing them with twenty-sixth century replicas. The real treasures were sold to private collectors in his own time for millions of credits, creating a nice little fund for Raoul and his boss, crime-lord Atam Sorza.
The lights came back on again. Strom tapped his fingers impatiently on the table. “Would someone like to tell me why I’m here?”
Leona looked around the table. “Gentlemen, if you could give me five minutes alone with the Captain.”
She waited for the room to empty before sliding an archive file across the table toward him. It was a paper photograph. Strom had seen them in museums as a child, but he had never held one before. A smiling girl in a garden, her long dark hair fell around her shoulders in waves. She was utterly different from the females of his time, slender and delicate, with no weapons enhancements and little or no muscle. She was just, soft. He could probably break her in two with one hand.
But it was her expression that captivated him. She looked into the camera with such love, such naked adoration in her eyes that Strom felt like a voyeur. This was a personal image, something to hold, to treasure. He experienced a surprising stab of jealousy for the photographer, he was certain it was a man.
“Pretty,” he murmured. He didn’t slide the photograph back. Instead, his hand rested lightly on the sleeve.
“Strom, look at the photograph again.”
He scanned the image, running it through his internal database, checking it against criminals, known terrorists and missing soldiers, nothing.
“No, Strom. Look with your eyes.” He glared impatiently at her. What was this, a guessing game?
In the background were a few people wearing twenty-first century clothing. He looked at the girl’s eyes again. She seemed to be looking at him, smiling for him. She was carrying a single rose and she wore an unusual ring on her left hand. Two wolf heads intertwined, their eyes were set with tiny Cerulian rubies. Strom felt as though he’d been punched in the chest. It was his grandfather’s ring—a souvenir of his first trip into deep space. The ring had been made off-world, more than four hundred years after this photograph was taken, and it was hanging on a chain around his neck. His finger reached inside his uniform, it was still there.
Strom’s eyes shot up. “No chance that this is a fake”?
Leona shook her head. “I’m sorry, Strom. I’m afraid it’s real. From what we’ve been able to find out about the girl, she’s the one who first uncovered the museum thefts. Raoul murdered her the same year this photograph was taken. We need you to stop him.”
Strom was surprised by the level of anger that burned through him. He had witnessed the aftermath of battle, the horror of death among the civilian casualties, but that was just business. This felt personal, almost.
Leona’s expression was tinged with pity. There was something bad coming. “Her name was Ingrid Sorenson. We believe she was your wife.”
“Calm down. Calm down. Just calm down, Sorenson.”
Ingrid repeated the words like a mantra as she crawled slowly to the end of the storage bay. She hadn’t heard their voices for at least five minutes, but that didn’t mean anything. They could still be here, waiting for her. Ingrid winced, her knees hurt from crawling along the concrete floor. The sheer stockings and short dress weren’t exactly designed for running away from killers and the blood on her hands had already started to dry. Ingrid suppressed a cry as she looked at the dark stains, David’s blood.
She had wanted to go to the police about the missing artifacts, but David thought it might all be a mix up and he had insisted on speaking to Raoul first. Dear, gentle David, museum curator for thirty-five years. He was due to retire in two month’s time and they had killed him. Just shot him dead in front of her. Tears rolled down her face again. Stop it, stop it. Don’t think about that now.
Ingrid took a deep breath before inching slowly into the passageway. So far so good. If she could get to the stairwell, she could make her way to the kitchens and the emergency exit there.
“Have you found her yet?” The radio blared to life in the next storage bay and Ingrid had to bite her lip to stop herself from screaming.
“Not yet. But we have all the exits covered.” The man’s voice faded as he walked in the opposite direction.
If she couldn’t go down, she would have to go up. It was a big museum. She knew every inch of it and it would take them a long time to search two floors of exhibits. All she had to do was find somewhere to hide until the museum opened up tomorrow morning. Who was she kidding? The telephone system was disconnected. They were armed, they wanted to kill her and they had all night to find her. She was toast.
The wonderful thing about nineteenth century buildings was the number of staircases. All built to ensure that the common working man didn’t have any contact with the important gentlemen scholars. Most of them weren’t on the map—no one wanted the visitors to use them. Ingrid made her up the creaky, narrow backstairs to the next floor, Prehistoric and Neanderthal Man. Her cell phone was in her desk drawer, just one floor away. Then she could ring for help. She almost began to feel hopeful.
“Ms. Sorenson.” The public address system buzzed to life and Raoul’s slightly nasal voice came over the sound system. “We know that you are here, Ms. Sorenson. Why don’t you come out now and make this less unpleasant?”
Yeah right. Why don’t I just stand up and let you shoot me? Ingrid crawled behind the Giant Red Elk exhibit. Her knees were aching and her heart was thumping like a drum. The door creaked open. Oh god. Oh god.