15 March 2009
The only things that gave me the strength to pull myself off that grassy spot and walk further from Holly were the images that flashed through my mind – Holly, sitting in that orientation, hiding the book in her lap with her name carefully written inside, her hair twirling around the pencil she was using to take notes. I had sat three rows behind her that day . . . today . . . and watched her the whole two hours. And even though she hadn’t once looked back at me, I figured she must have known I was staring because she rolled her eyes at me outside the building, just before I got in my car. There was something both affectionate and challenging in that look she had given me.
Now, repeating that day, I felt so much relief knowing I wouldn’t be in that room with her, allowing her life to collide with mine in such a dangerous way. I just had to keep playing those memories over and over, removing myself from the picture in my head, and I knew I’d get through this. I’d live without her as long as I could imagine her life without me. More importantly, her life would be better without me.
The moment I walked into Dad’s place, my arm in a sling and a whole lot of crap to explain, it was a little easier to temporarily set my thoughts of Holly aside . . . for now.
15 March 2009, 6.00 p.m.
Dad took one look at my injured shoulder as I leaned my good arm against the door frame of his home office and strode quickly across the room. ‘What the hell happened to you, Jackson?’
‘I got shot.’ I let out a breath, prepping for his reaction. ‘In August of this year . . . by Raymond . . . one of the Enemies of Time. He’s dead now . . . well, he was dead in August . . . which hasn’t happened yet . . . so, I guess I’m not sure . . .’
He froze on the spot, eyes widening. I reached in my pocket and removed the memory card that August 2009 Dad had given me, and offered it to him. ‘This is yours . . . sort of.’
He completely ignored the memory card and moved closer, resting his hands on my face, looking me over carefully. ‘Are you OK? Tell me you’re OK.’
And this was the moment when I knew for sure that I could trust any and all versions of my dad.
‘Physically, I’m fine.’ I tugged his hands from my face and placed the memory card in his open palm. ‘But we have a lot to talk about and we might need Chief Marshall and Dr Melvin.’
He nodded, still half in shock, probably wondering how I knew Chief Marshall, then pointed to a chair for me to sit down in. I waited patiently while he zipped through notes on his computer. I couldn’t read any of his code, but I had guessed what he might have read by the time I heard him draw in a breath and rub his hands over his face.
‘I’m sorry about Eileen,’ I said finally.
He closed his eyes for a moment and then turned in his chair to face me. ‘We aren’t going to tell anyone about Holly or this Adam Silverman kid . . . not Chief Marshall or Dr Melvin. No one.’
‘Good,’ I said immediately, glad we were on the same page.
‘I have a plan for keeping tabs on them.’ He stared over my shoulder at the wall, lost in thought. ‘A reliable source that will make sure everything stays under the radar. But you have to promise me you won’t look up their emails or Facebook or anything that’s traceable. Understood?’
I swallowed the lump in my throat, feeling the finality in my answer. ‘Understood.’
‘And there’s no way I’d ever let you join Tempest,’ he stated flatly. ‘I’m not sure what my other self was thinking . . . maybe he took a blow to the head before agreeing to this, but it’s not happening.’
Didn’t he understand why I’d made the choices I’d made? ‘I have to. I’m not going back to my old life. I can’t. I know about Jenni Stewart. I met her in 2007 . . . in that other universe or whatever. She was only my age and Chief Marshall let her join the CIA.’
My knee bounced up and down, anticipating his argument. It felt like a clock was ticking inside my chest. If I didn’t dive in, headfirst, to something totally new, I would find myself running into that camp counsellor orientation, apologizing to Mr Wellborn for being late and undoing the one unselfish thing I’d managed to do in my life.
Dad’s expression faltered, showing early signs of defeat. ‘You do realize that I’ve devoted eighteen years of my life to preventing this very thing from happening.’
‘I didn’t raise you for this.’ His eyebrows knitted together. ‘What I mean is . . . you’ve had it pretty easy . . . you’ve never had to worry about anything . . . never had to defend yourself. You aren’t ready for this. Maybe we could just—’
‘Then I’ll get ready,’ I said firmly, standing up from my chair. I reached for the phone on the desk before Dad could stop me. ‘Should I call Chief Marshall, or are you going to?’
‘Fine.’ He snatched the receiver from my hand and slammed it back into the cradle. ‘Do you even know his number?’ he asked as he dialled from his own cellphone.
I gave him half a smile. ‘Uh . . . no.’
15 March 2009, 9.00 p.m.
‘If I do the half-jump, I’ll still be in this room, but I’ll also be somewhere else . . . wherever I jump to,’ I attempted to explain to Dr Melvin and Chief Marshall. Their faces both reflected scepticism, like maybe I had just imagined this whole element of time travel. ‘I can prove it. Give me something to go look up or a question that I can only answer if I’ve managed to look into the past.’
‘So, you’re totally here in this year, right now?’ Dad asked. ‘You’re not sitting in a vegetative state somewhere else in addition to being in this room?’
It was freakin’ confusing. I knew that, but I couldn’t help getting frustrated trying to explain these weird phenomenons for the millionth time. I plopped down on the living-room couch, letting out an exhausted sigh. ‘I’m not half-here. I’m all the way here. I did a full jump from a different timeline to get here.’
‘And how can you be sure of this?’ Chief Marshall asked.
‘I feel different in a half-jump. Sensations are dulled, like hot and cold or pain.’ As if to emphasize my point, my shoulder started throbbing from beneath the sling. I rubbed it a little with my free hand, which only made it hurt more. ‘A half-jump is like a shadow of the timeline I’m currently in. That’s why nothing changes in my present or home base.’
The explanation was stolen from 007 Adam, but I figured it might make me sound like I knew what I was talking about.
‘And you view the timelines like worlds running parallel to each other?’ Dr Melvin asked. ‘Just for clarification . . . to you a full-jump is when you travel to a different, parallel, world, not a time jump within the same world?’
‘Right . . . and I know for sure there’re multiple timelines because I went back to 2007 . . . not in a half-jump, I was all the way there, feeling the pain and the cold and all that,’ I rattled off. ‘Then I returned to my original timeline and it was 2009 and those versions of you guys didn’t remember anything that happened in the 2007 I had just returned from.’
My head was already spinning and I had a feeling we were just getting started.
‘Perhaps we should get a look at this skill . . . have him show us the half-jump,’ Dr Melvin said. ‘Though, I don’t want to physically put him in jeopardy, with the gunshot wound and all.’
Chief Marshall, leaning back against the living-room mantel, held up his hands. This was almost like our conversation in 2007, when he knocked me out with the poisonous rag and dragged me to that secret headquarters. ‘The boy will do no time-travelling unless we order it, understood?’
Dr Melvin and I both reluctantly nodded.
‘I think your excitement, Dr Melvin, is a bit premature.’ Marshall folded his arms across his chest, staring me down from his six-and-a-half-foot stature. ‘He may have gained a few new tricks but he’s not mature enough to deal with the repercussions of his actions. So, you say it was Raymond who shot you?’
‘Yes,’ I said through my teeth. This version of Marshall wasn’t any better than the other two I had met.
‘And Raymond is . . . as you described . . . a short redheaded man . . . a little stocky, blue eyes, spiky hair . . . a shoe print may or may not be permanently etched on his face?’ Marshall asked as if this was a police interrogation with an idiot suspect.
Maybe Dad was right. Maybe I didn’t need this. My mind drifted to Holly, driving home in her old beaten-up Honda . . .
then I imagined Adam there with her. I pictured them laughing together, joking about the spoiled kids they’d have to supervise all summer.
I looked up at Marshall and forced the anger from my tongue. ‘Yes, that’s Raymond, and he’s dead. Dad killed him. But the first time I met him was in October of 2009 and he shot—’ I froze for a second, watching Dad shake his head ever so slightly at me, keeping me from mentioning Holly. ‘He tried to shoot me and . . . and didn’t succeed, but then I was stuck in 2007 and who knows what I screwed up with that full jump to the alternate universe or whatever? If I had known some agent stuff, maybe that wouldn’t have happened. Don’t you want me to have some method of defence? For everyone’s sake.’
‘We aren’t a normal division of the CIA,’ Marshall explained. ‘Whatever preconceived notions you may have developed from television or spy movies need to be dissolved immediately. Our first priority isn’t the US government or even the American people . . . it’s humanity in general . . . more specifically, preserving the natural, ethical state of humanity. Tempest spends at least two years training new agents and drilling this into their heads. We can’t let you jump in on their game and tell them all you were created in a lab using the genetics of a cloned woman . . . We can’t tell them you can time-travel or that the Tempus gene hidden in your physical make-up has allowed you to learn Farsi in a day and memorize step-by-step pictures of self-defence. We can’t tell them that, if we want them to continue trusting their leaders . . . such as myself and your father.’
‘How many agents-in-training are we talking about?’ I asked, only because I was curious. The whole division seemed so ambiguous to me. I could hardly wrap my head around the concept.
‘Those details are on a need-to-know basis,’ Marshall said. ‘Are you understanding what I’m trying to tell you, son?’
‘Don’t call me son.’ The words snapped out of my mouth before I could stop them. Marshall only narrowed his eyes at me, but said nothing. ‘Yes, I understand. Don’t tell anyone about my superpowers . . . don’t use my superpowers . . . and most importantly, don’t tell anyone I came from a clone.’
Marshall stared at something on his BlackBerry. ‘So, you’re willing to give everything up . . . the freedom we’ve given you on the government’s dollar? According to Agent Stewart, you have a fundraiser to attend tomorrow night and, the following night, a party at Caleb’s house. Sounds like good times.’
‘I’m ready to get the hell out of New York, if that’s what you’re asking.’
Marshall’s lips formed a devious grin that made my stomach do flip-flops. ‘Great, plane leaves at six tomorrow morning for our next training location.’
‘Where—’ I started to ask, but Marshall held up his hand to stop me.
‘Need-to-know basis, kid. Get used to it. And don’t expect me or Agent Freeman to treat you any different than the other recruits.’
‘Agent Freeman?’ The man who’d followed me and Courtney to school every day in seventh grade. In the timeline I had just left, he knew about me being able to time-travel. ‘Are you . . . going to tell him anything? About me?’
‘No,’ Dad and Marshall said together. Marshall strode out of the room, and the second the front door shut, Dr Melvin’s face changed to that of the sympathetic old man I had known my whole life.
‘Let me have a look at that shoulder,’ he said, already pulling the sling over my head. ‘You’ll have to be careful with it for another couple of days.’
I looked over at Dad. ‘Do you know where I’m going in the morning?’
He attempted a smile. ‘You mean where we’re going . . . and I do know. The desert.’
‘Like Arizona?’ I asked.
‘Like the Middle East.’
The Middle East? The confidence that had come out in my exchange with Chief Marshall slowly deflated as I realized that I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into.
16 March 2009, 6.00 a.m.
‘Is someone going to tell me what the hell is going on?’
Dad, Marshall, Freeman and I stood on one of the runways at JFK, staring at a very fancy private government plane. One I had flown in many times, thinking it was Dad’s CEO jet.
‘Jackson will be joining our squad for the next several weeks,’ Marshall said.
Freeman stared blankly at him. ‘What? Is this some kind of school assignment?’
Marshall’s smirk was directed at me, as if saying he knew no one would take me seriously. ‘I’ll rephrase my answer. Agent Jackson Meyer will be joining the Tempest Division for training. In fact, I’m assigning him to your group: Advanced Defence. Give him the same tough love you give to the other recruits.’
Freeman looked at me. ‘This is a joke, right?’
Dad clapped him on the back. ‘Nope. He’s all yours. Kind of tradition, don’t you think? Your father trained me, I trained you . . . and now you’ll train my kid.’
Dad and Marshall boarded the plane, leaving me outside with a bewildered Agent Freeman. He finally shook his head and turned to me, speaking low and under his breath. ‘I’m not sure what stunt Marshall is pulling here, but don’t worry . . . I’ll make sure you’re OK.’
‘Uh . . . thanks,’ I said, not knowing how else to respond.
When I stepped on to the plane, I quickly counted heads and came up with eleven unfamiliar faces. All young. Very young. Probably my age or a year or two older. My eyes stopped on Jenni Stewart, waiting for her reaction. How would she differ from the girl who had bailed me out of jail and posed as Dad’s secretary in 2007?
Her head snapped around, searching two rows back for Dad like she wasn’t sure what role she was about to play. Perhaps secretary? Or something totally new.
Marshall stood behind me, letting a murmur of gossip fill the cabin before speaking. ‘Many of you know of Agent Meyer’s son, Jackson . . . he’ll be joining your group for the next expedition. You are to treat him as one of your teammates.’
‘Wait,’ a broad-shouldered dude from the back row said. ‘He’s the French poetry major, right?’
‘Aren’t you supposed to be babysitting little brats or something?’ another guy said.
There was a twitter of nervous laughter. I kept my eyes on Jenni Stewart, knowing she’d been fine with helping me learn some stuff in 2007. Her eyes were wide and confused, darting from Marshall to Dad to Freeman, but she said nothing and I could practically hear the theories racing through her mind. Next to her sat a skinny freckle-faced kid who had to be even younger than me.
I slid into the seat in front of them and stuck my hand out to the kid next to Jenni Stewart. ‘I’m Jackson.’
‘I know who you are . . . we all do.’ He didn’t shake my hand. Instead, he turned his eyes to the book in his lap. ‘Mason . . . Mason Sterling.’
Jenni Stewart rolled her eyes and elbowed Mason in the side. ‘This should be a blast . . . Junior playing secret agent. He must have thrown a mighty big tantrum to get his way on to this flight.’
‘Yep,’ Mason said under his breath.
I sighed and turned around in my seat, slumping low enough so no one could start throwing stuff at my head. Fine. If this was how it had to be, I’d prove my way into this group. Whatever it took. No more wearing my heart on my sleeve. I needed a hard shell, one that kept me from thinking about Holly and wishing I could talk to Adam or half-jump to visit my twin sister Courtney again.
This is my life now.
As the plane took off, I stared out of the window and promised myself to stay focused. To do whatever I had to so I could be good at this job. Then I’d learn about the Enemies of Time . . . find out what the hell happened to create that future that little Emily had shown me and why the hell she looked so much like Courtney. And I could do all of it without the risks that came with time travel. That was what had gotten me into trouble in the first place.
‘Sorry about that,’ Dad said, taking the seat beside me. ‘This is a very tight-knit group and we’ve taught them to be suspicious of everything.’
I glanced at him. ‘I get it . . . I need to earn my spot . . . earn their respect. I’ve played this game before.’ Yeah, winning over 007 Holly, I couldn’t help thinking.
Dad must have read my mind. ‘Are you worried . . . about . . . ?’ Holly. He didn’t say it, but I guessed.
‘I trust you.’ My eyes locked with his for a few seconds so he’d know I meant it. It was about the only thing I knew for sure. I turned my eyes back to the window. ‘I just don’t trust myself, but I’m trying.’
She’ll be OK...she’ll be happy. I closed my eyes and let my mind drift to Holly, only without me. I smiled to myself. Her life will be perfect. Just perfect.
I could survive for a long time just knowing that.
Mason kicked the back of my seat, jerking me out of my daydream. ‘What happened to your arm, dude?’
I kept my eyes straight ahead, not turning around to look at either of them behind me, but I spoke loud enough for both Jenni Stewart and Mason to hear. ‘Gunshot wound.’
‘Cool,’ Mason said, then he practically yelled, ‘Ow! Damn, Stewart!’
Dad laughed under his breath and I shrugged my good shoulder, hiding my own grin. At least I had made a good first impression with one person. One down . . . a bunch more to go.
Excerpted from Vortex by Julie Cross. Copyright © 2013 Julie Cross.
First published 2013 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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