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PART I PRESENT
I don't feel safe anymore unless I'm holding a gun in my hand.
Boom. The air smells of gunpowder, but the sound is muffled by my headset.
Boom. Right in the chest. I line up the next shot.
Boom. That one's in the head. A little to the right of where I aimed, but that's why I practice every week.
I've shot two people before. One by accident. One on purpose. I don't regret pulling the trigger either time. I'll do it again if I have to — and I won't miss.
The weapon is a familiar, comforting weight in my hand, yet I also loathe it. I never touched a gun until a year ago. I wish I could live the rest of my life without firing one again. But after what I've lived through, I need to be able to defend myself and the people I care about. Call it paranoia, call it being prepared, but I'm going to be ready for whatever comes next.
Fluorescent lights illuminate the narrow alley as I square my feet and take aim. I fire until the gun is empty and the target is littered with holes. I've been coming to this range for months. The orange paper man never stood a chance.
Out of ammo, I step back and check the aisles on either side of me. To my left, Zahra fires her last couple rounds into a target as tortured as mine. On my right, Paige grins while every single one of her bullets hits the exact center of the target's head. She'd never shot a gun before I invited her to the range a few months ago, but she's already better than me and Zahra.
When the girls are finished, we gather up our equipment, grab our targets, and step out of the range. Once the door shuts, we take off our headsets and shake out our hair.
Zahra eyes Paige's bullet-ridden target. "You sure you weren't on the Olympic shooting team instead of the gymnastics one? There's no way you can be that good already."
"You're just jealous of my mad skills." Paige flips back her blond hair with a grin before skipping over to Rob, the guy behind the counter of the gun shop. Zahra and I roll our eyes, but follow her to hand over our rented gear.
"Stay safe, ladies," Rob says when we're done checking out. He's an older white guy with a big, bushy beard and always wears a flannel shirt, but he has a kind smile and has always made me and Zahra feel welcome here. Since I'm Mexican-American and Zahra is Iranian-American, that's not always the case, especially at places like gun ranges. I've been called a chola or a gangbanger, while Zahra's often labeled a terrorist the second she walks in. We've been told to go back where we came from more times than we can count, even though we were both born here in Los Angeles.
We wave good-bye to Rob and head to the parking lot, where our cars are lined up under a palm tree. A cool ocean breeze ruffles my dark hair. It's one of those perfect LA days when the sky is so clear and blue it doesn't look real, when it's warm enough to go out in a T-shirt and flip-flops, but not hot enough to make you sweat.
The kind of day you take for granted when you live here, except on those rare moments when you can stop, take a breath, and realize how lucky you are to be alive. I'm trying to take more of those moments, to commit them to memory instead of all the bad images crowding my head. I'll never get rid of those memories, but maybe I can shove them aside with better ones.
I lean against my car, gripping my keys. "Have you seen anything strange lately? Cars following you or people hanging outside your apartment?"
Zahra immediately scans the street around us, but I've already checked and we're alone. No black cars. No strange men listening in. "Nope. Have you?"
"No." Ever since Aether kidnapped me and forced me to time travel into the future for the second time, I've been paranoid they'll try it again. They haven't yet, but I'll be looking out for them for the rest of my life.
Paige shrugs. "Maybe they're keeping their promise to leave us alone."
My mouth twists into a scowl. "Maybe they're being more discreet this time."
"No one is getting near us without me knowing it." Zahra's dark eyes study the street again. "But I can go over our security if you're worried."
A few months ago, Zahra set up special firewalls on all our computers and installed security systems at our apartments with cameras and alarms. I trust her skills and expertise, but Aether has a lot more resources.
I zip up my hoodie. "I'm always worried. If they come after us, I want to be prepared."
Paige rests a hand on my shoulder. "We'll be ready."
I nod, but I can't shake the feeling that Aether isn't done with us yet. These past few months have been too calm, too easy, too quiet.
"Will I see you both tonight?" I ask as I unlock my car. It's the one-year anniversary of when I met Adam and Chris, and the six-month anniversary of when I met Zahra, Paige, and Ken. I'm throwing a little get-together at my apartment for all the time travelers — although I'm still not sure if it's to celebrate or to mourn. A little of both, perhaps.
"We'll be there," Zahra says.
"Can't wait," Paige says, then gives me one of her enthusiastic hugs. I should be used to them by now, but it still takes me by surprise.
We break apart, and the two of them get into Paige's car to head to the apartment they share. I watch as the car leaves the lot and turns the corner, making sure they're not followed before starting my own.
Years of moving from one foster home to another prevented me from forming lasting relationships for most of my life, but Zahra and Paige have become true friends over the last six months. Zahra and I didn't get along at first, and I had no clue what to make of Paige and her relentless cheerfulness and energy. Now I can't imagine not having them in my life, especially since they're some of the only people who understand what I've been through.
One year ago, I was recruited by Aether Corporation for their time-travel experiment, Project Chronos. That's where I met my boyfriend, Adam, and our friend Chris, along with two others on our team, Trent and Zoe. The five of us traveled thirty years into the future for twenty-four hours, only to discover four of us would be murdered after we returned to the present. Adam and I were able to change our fate and I killed the real murderer — Lynne Marshall, an Aether employee who ran Project Chronos — but we weren't able to save Trent and Zoe. I've been haunted by their deaths ever since, although I've gotten better at coping with it. I've learned to focus my anger and control my panic attacks through therapy, kickboxing, and shooting at the gun range with Zahra and Paige.
I met the two of them when Aether kidnapped me, Adam, and Chris six months ago and forced us to return to the future to track down the time travelers they'd replaced us with. Team Echo consisted of Zahra and Paige, along with Ken, a young chemist, and Jeremy, the son of Aether's CEO. Ken and Chris were killed during the mission, so we returned to the future two more times to save their lives. In the process, we saw different visions of what our destinies could be and how much worse things could get for us.
Adam and I discovered that Jeremy was behind all the murders and the changes in the timeline, in an attempt to make himself more powerful in the future and get back at his father. I killed Jeremy to stop him, and then Adam and I destroyed the accelerator, preventing Aether from sending anyone to the future ever again.
In the past six months, Aether has left us alone and we've all tried to move on, even though it's impossible. At least for me.
No one should know their own fate. A person's future should remain a mystery. Destiny should be a secret. But I've seen my future. Multiple times. Four different timelines, with four different lives I might lead. Sometimes I'm happy. Sometimes I'm in prison. Sometimes I'm dead.
Each time I see the future, things change — usually for the worse. There's no way for me to know which timeline my actions will lead to anymore. I live each day second-guessing every choice, wondering which future I'm bringing about. I boomerang between confident about my fate to frozen with indecision, worried I'll do or say something that will send this timeline into disaster.
No one should live this way, but I don't have a choice. I've seen too much ... and I remember it all.
At 7:02 p.m., I check the table for the tenth time, making sure everything is in its place. Chips and guacamole. Plates. Silverware. I've never hosted a get-together at my apartment before, even an informal one like tonight's, and part of me feels like I'm pretending to be a grown-up, like a kid playing dress-up in Mamá's clothes. I'm almost nineteen, but I'm still figuring out this adulting thing.
The doorbell rings while I'm adjusting the napkins. Adam's little brown mutt of a dog, Max, starts barking and wagging his tail while I open the door. Chris stands on the other side wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt. He's black, with a shaved head, warm brown eyes, and muscular arms that show he's still working out regularly, even with a six-month-old baby.
He grabs me in a quick, loose hug. "Hey, Elena. Am I the first one here?"
"Yep." I step back to let him in. "Where's Shawnda?"
"She wanted to make it, but Michael is sick so she's home with him. She sent these brownies along though."
"Thanks." We head into the kitchen, and I grab him a soda from the fridge. "How's married life these days?"
"It's pretty damn good, actually." He cracks open his soda and takes a chug. "I never thought I'd be a stay-at-home dad, but I'm really digging it, at least while Shawnda's in nursing school."
Chris's son, Michael, is the reason Chris went to the future originally. When he learned his girlfriend (now wife) Shawnda was pregnant, he wanted to provide his kid with a better life than the one he had growing up. In each future we visited, his son's fate depended on whether Chris was around or not. In some timelines Michael went to Harvard and became a lawyer, while in others he ended up in prison. Chris is determined to make sure his son's life ends up on the right path, whatever it takes.
I can't imagine being a parent at our age, but I'm also oddly jealous. In one of the futures we visited, I met my daughter, Ava, but she won't be born for almost twelve more years. I'm impatient for it, even though I'm not ready to be a mom yet. I only spent a few minutes with her, but she filled me with purpose and a path for my future that I refuse to stray from. Now every decision I make, every action I take, I do it with the knowledge it may one day lead to her. But I've seen how fragile the timeline is too. If I take one wrong step, she might be erased from existence forever. I won't let that happen.
Chris bends down to pet Max. "Shawnda's mom is helping out a lot with Michael, so I think I'll be able to take classes again next semester and finish up my engineering degree."
That's another thing we saw in the future. In thirty years, Adam, Chris, and I will start a biotech company called Future Visions that will provide the world with cutting-edge technology, the cure for cancer and other diseases, and make us all rich at the same time. Now the three of us keep that goal in sight. The promise of our shared destiny gives us hope. Together, we're going to change the world for the better.
Zahra and Paige arrive next with a ton of food from the Persian restaurant Zahra's cousin owns. Paige looks at baby photos on Chris's phone, cooing about how big Michael is getting, while Zahra plies Max with dog treats. For a few minutes we chat about our different college classes, before Ken shows up at the door. He's a half-Japanese guy with short black hair, kind eyes, and a blue T-shirt that reads, "All the good chemistry jokes argon."
"Ken!" Paige grabs him in an exuberant hug. "I haven't seen you in forever!"
Their hug lasts a few seconds beyond friendly, like they can't stand to let go of each other. When they finally break apart, his face is flushed and he rubs the back of his neck. "Sorry. I've been working in the lab a lot these days."
"It's so good to see you." She takes his hand and leads him to the couch. "I have to tell you what happened in my class the other day." Once they're on the couch and lost in conversation, Zahra rolls her eyes. "I need to mash their faces together and make them kiss already." Chris crosses his arms, leaning back against my kitchen counter. "Didn't Paige dump her loser boyfriend?"
"Yeah, she did. But she's oblivious to how Ken feels about her, and he's too shy to tell her. They're hopeless."
I shake my head. "I thought for sure they'd be dating by now." After Paige discovered that her boyfriend was going to grow into a shady Congressman and a cheating husband, she dumped him and swore to only date nice guys from then on. Ken, on the other hand, learned he was going to die at age thirty-eight from Huntington's disease, which he inherited from his mother. He didn't want to suffer the same trauma she's enduring now and tried to end his life, knowing Aether would pay his parents a hefty compensation fee. I managed to convince him not to do it and insisted there was still time to change his fate. Now, with Adam's help, he hopes to create a cure for Huntington's disease someday.
Zahra looks over at the two of them with a frown. "Sometimes I think about saying something to Paige, but I don't know if that's overstepping, and I've been so busy with my brother lately ..." "How's he doing?" I ask. Zahra's future revealed that her brother's gambling addiction would lead to him being murdered by the Russian mafia. In different timelines we saw the Zahra of the future try to help him by paying off his debts, but it never worked out well. She soon realized the only solution was to get him help in the present before he got involved with the Russians.
"He got out of rehab last week, and he seems to be doing okay," Zahra says. "Who knows if it will stick, but at least I tried. I'm keeping an eye on him to make sure he stays out of trouble."
"I'm glad he's doing better." I check my watch. 7:14. Adam should be home by now. Dammit.
Chris's eyes follow my movement. "Where's Adam?" "I don't know. He must be running late." I pull out my phone but don't have any texts from him. I send one off: Where are you?
Zahra and Chris start talking about computer stuff, and I tune them out while I make sure everyone has drinks and something to snack on. Five minutes later, Adam texts me back. Sorry. Leaving the lab now.
"Adam's on his way," I tell the others, trying to hide the annoyance in my voice. Everyone gives me a long look, so I know I'm not successful.
"Is everything okay?" Zahra asks.
"Yeah." I take a long drink of water, clutching the glass. "He's been working on the cure nonstop, and I guess he lost track of time." The truth is, I barely see Adam these days, even though he lives with me now. I try to give him space because his work is important, but I can't believe he'd forget tonight, of all nights.
"Ken's the same way these days." Paige bumps his side with her shoulder. "Always working in the lab with Adam."
Ken shoves his hands in his jeans and looks down. "Not always. Today I had class and then took my mom to a doctor's appointment."
Paige lightly touches his arm. "I don't want you and Adam to get burned out. That's all."
"We won't. We're so close to a breakthrough. Just a few more days, and we'll have it. And once the cancer cure is done, I might be able to use the research to develop a cure for Huntington's too." Ken's eyes light up when he talks about their work, but then his face drops. "Although Adam, he's ..."
When he doesn't go on, Chris asks, "He's what?"
"He's been kind of ... off lately."
My throat seems to close up. "What do you mean, off?"
Ken's eyes snap to mine, but then he glances at our friends and his mouth opens and closes. He shrugs and forces a laugh. "Eh, it's nothing. He probably needs more sleep."
There's obviously more to it, but he seems uncomfortable talking about it in front of the others. I make myself smile, while inside I'm screaming at him to tell me what he knows. "That must be it. I'll talk to him about it."
Paige seems to sense we need a topic change and starts telling the others about our weekly shooting practice. I slip into the kitchen alone and take a moment to lean against the fridge, closing my eyes and breathing in and out until I'm calm again.
It seems I'm not the only one who's noticed Adam's been acting different lately. For too long I pushed my worries aside and told myself everything would be fine, but I can't ignore it anymore. Over the last six months, Adam has changed. At first I thought it was because of the things we saw in the future, or what happened when we got back to the present, but now I'm not sure. All I know is that it always comes back to genicote: the cure for cancer that Adam is destined to develop.
Excerpted from "Future Lost"
Copyright © 2018 Elizabeth Briggs.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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