GEORGE & ISAAC
“When you were a little boy, just before you turned four, Rhys saved my life.”
George Denton sat across a table from Isaac at Sof y Z’s, basket of warm tortilla chips between them. Isaac pressed one between his fingers, cracking it, squeezing out a considerable amount of oil that coated his fingertips. He’d heard variations of the story before, snippets to explain the gap of time when his father was not in his life; he knew he’d lived with Rhys and his family for months on end, and knew his father had been injured, but he’d never been certain of the reasons and now wanted to know.
“How?” he pressed. “We were three years old. What happened that a toddler could do anything to actually save a life?”
George held his hands out, palms up, and he flicked his middle fingers toward his wrists, mimicking Rhys. “This. He stopped time. If he hadn’t? I would have been dead within seconds. Odie likely would have died as well.”
He didn’t gloss over the details this time. George and James waited outside a Market Street restaurant for Jay, James’s son, mentally preparing to drop the news that they were separating. George wanted to tell him there was no one to blame; they’d grown apart, had little in common, but Isaac knew his former stepfather well and stopped him. “Odie’s a ho. We all know that. You can only take so much.”
George didn’t argue. He’d tolerated James’s wandering eye—and other assorted body parts—for nearly two decades, but this time James met someone and fell in love. If it had been another man, George knew he could fight back and win; he also recognized that women were forbidden candy to James, and he didn’t feel as if he could compete.
“Yeah, that lasted maybe five years. So. Ho.”
“Fine. But we waited outside the restaurant for Jay, and wondered if we should just go inside and get a table. It was a popular place, and we thought we could save Jay some time by getting one early.”
They went back and forth for several minutes. James wanted to go in; George was afraid that if they weren’t standing where he expected, Jay might presume they were also late, and just stand there. James pointed out that Jay was a resourceful kid and would either text or call them if he was unsure. They were early; Jay might be a few minutes late, but they could easily wait for him seated comfortably at a table in an air-conditioned room.
George almost agreed. He recalled his mouth opening to tell James he might be right, when the building exploded, sending chunks of the structure flying, destroying trees, and bringing down upon George and James an industrial lamppost that fractured into massive bits, pinning them underneath.
George bore the brunt of it. The weight of it slamming him to the ground tore his body in half, and had it been moved even a tiny bit, he would have bled out in the time it took to blink. With the mass of concrete in place, he had enough time to speed through his last wishes to Jay when he arrived, and gave instructions to Will—who arrived at Jay’s urging—but just barely. He knew he was on his last breath when the world suddenly stopped.
His next memory was waking in a hospital bed almost two hundred years in the future. He was given the short version—Rhys had stopped time for all but a few select people, freezing George and James in a sliver of time that allowed the Emperor, William Blackshear, to jump them forward into critical care surgical tanks, and Rhys kept them frozen long enough for the nanobot-filled surgical gel to cover George’s gaping wounds.
His upper and lower torsos were held together by only a strand of fractured spine; he should not have survived. Without Rhys, his death would have been pronounced on the green bicycle lane on Market Street, the cause of death listed as exsanguination. Instead, he spent months under anesthesia in a future-forward acrylic tank filled with thick, nanobot infused surgical gel, floating as the microscopic robots went to work repairing and restoring tissue and bone.
“The entire time I was in that tank, you lived with him. Will and Aisha cared for you and would have kept you if not for Jay.”
“If you’d died,” Isaac guessed.
George nodded. “Jay was my choice of guardian, but during a stretch out of the tank, Will admitted that he wanted you if the worst happened. I’m still not sure he believes I made the right choice.”
“I’d have been happy either way. Except for the whole part about you dying.”
“And if it happened now?” George pressed. “Have you considered who you’d want to live with?”
Isaac gave a half shrug. “Dunno. Still either, I guess. It’d probably be easier on Jay if I lived with Will and Aisha, though. I mean, with the baby and all.”
“They can care for you and the baby, Isaac.”
“I meant space wise. I love that kid but I don’t want to share a room with him. But do me a favor and don’t die. No one wants that.”
He wasn’t planning on it, but wanted something in place, something Isaac was all right with. “I’m leaving for Elysium soon and I’ll be on the station for several weeks. Things can go wrong. Andrew nearly died there.”
“Years ago,” Isaac said. “Kids live there now, Dad. They wouldn’t let families on the station if it were all that dangerous. It’s not like you’ll be floating around outside the way Drew did, right?”
He would not attempt a spacewalk, as Drew had, but George’s work necessitated frequent travel from the station to pods tethered miles away. Drew had been left stranded when the hopper he’d ridden in exploded. There hadn’t been a similar accident since, but it was at the forefront of George’s mind, and the risk was always there.
“This is a just-in-case question, Isaac. Just give me your gut reaction. Will and Aisha, or Jay?”
It took a few seconds for his gut to kick in. “Will and Aisha. I mean, Jay would obviously let me live with him, but I’m used to staying with Rhys and I’ve got their routine down pat. If I picked Jay, he’d feel like he needed to move to get a bigger apartment, which would upset Aubrey because god forbid anyone leave the royal house unless it’s in a body bag.”
He was not mean; it amused him. The Queen was protective and wanted her family close. All of them. She refused to consider what would happen when there were great-grandchildren to think about; the building was not yet bulging at the seams, there was still room to expand, and she wanted them to stay.
“You’d be sucked into the vortex,” George teased. “Move in and she’ll never want you to leave.”
“Damn, what a major hardship, being so wanted that you get to live in the most protected residence in Pacifica. I’d probably never want to move away.”
That could present issues in his adult life, George pointed out. Future relationships might push him toward the door; future jobs might take him out of the city.
“A job might,” Isaac agreed. “I don’t think I’m the relationship type. I’m betting I’ll have total say in where I live and work.”
To his credit, George did not laugh. “You’re fifteen. Give it time.”
Isaac didn’t think so. He told his father to look around; there were probably a couple of men he was attracted to, even if he had no intention of doing anything about it. “I look around, and…nothing. I’ve never met someone and thought I wanted anything more than friendship. Zero interest in anything physical. Like, not even with myself most of the time. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but that’s how I am.”
These were waters George wanted to tread carefully, but he was quick to respond. “There’s nothing wrong with you, Isaac. You could be anything from a late bloomer to asexual, or anything in between. Who you are is not wrong.”
“Pretty sure I’ve bloomed.” Isaac chuckled. “I mean, I get the whole flirting thing and I enjoy that. I get that kissing is probably really nice and I’d try that. But that’s kind of it. The rest doesn’t appeal to me.”
“Still nothing wrong.”
“Then what am I? Because I can’t figure it out. Like, when did you figure out you were gay? Did you have to think about it, or was it like, damn that guy’s super-hot and I want to su—”
George held up a hand to stop him. “I knew when I was very young. But flip that over. James was never sure, well into his thirties. He always thought he had to pick, and never could.”
“But at least he had a compass. He had feelings.”
“Fuck-me feelings,” Isaac said. “He knew he wanted sex. I’m pretty sure I don’t.”
“Then don’t. But also don’t close yourself off to other people because of it. It’s perfectly fine to be disinterested now, yet meet someone later who makes you reconsider. It’s also just as valid to have those feelings wax and wane, or to enjoy all the romance without the sex. It’s just another way to be.”
Isaac snatched up another chip, mangling it as well. “Is that why you never date? Waning when you used to wax?”
There were a dozen reasons why. Part of it was owed to being a single father and wanting to always be available. He’d considered it as Isaac grew into adolescence, but at some point decided that he was done putting up with someone else’s issues.
“By days lived, I’m over eighty years old, Isaac. I’m tired.”
“You’re not even sixty.”
He was given back the years he’d spent in this When, dropped here when the future world was about to end. He’d been in preschool with Will, yet when Will arrived in Pacifica for good, he’d already lived here for over twenty years. “They saved the world, and then rolled back time for people who’d been apart from their families for decades. So yes, I’ve been alive for eighty years.”
He could easily live another hundred, and Isaac was aware. “Please don’t be alone all that time.”
“Says the boy who just said he thought he would be alone.”
“That’s different. I don’t get horny. You do.”
“Isaac. I said I didn’t want to date. That doesn’t preclude sex.”
It took several beats for that to register. “Ew. All right, circle back. If Elysium goes boom, and they want me, I’ll stay with Will and Aisha. Eli will probably want the cats to live with him. At least they’ve decided Wick is okay and not there to eat them.”
The old King loved Isaac’s cats and was always the one to watch them when George and Isaac were away. There had been three of them at one time, but kidney disease had taken the oldest, and the other two were bonded. Everyone worried what would happen to the last one alive; that’s when the introductions to me began, hoping that when the worst happened, I would be liked enough to act as a salve.
They did not like Thor, however, so Isaac was right presuming they would live with the old King in his downstairs apartment.
“Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that anytime soon,” George said. “I’ve still got things to atone for and dying now would leave too many of them undone in this world, regardless of the When.”
Isaac was aware of some of the things George had done, but not the biggest of them. I hoped he wouldn’t share, because those were things Isaac might not be able to forgive.
The teenager skipped right over that part. “Who decided to call time periods ‘Whens’? I’ve never understood that.”
George knew, because he’d felt the same and asked Will.
It was created out of confusion, trying to determine which period of time was being discussed.
“Where did that happen?”
“No, I mean, when?”
“Not this When, that When.”
As simple as that, Finn stumbled upon the way those who left his birth When to live in other times talked about it, and cemented that terminology into his son, Will, who extended it to the rest of the Blackshears.
It was comfortable and not awkward, not until Will used the phrase “Other When” to describe his own father.
That was just weird.
He knew it, too. Didn’t care.
“Are they ever going to tell the rest of the world about portals and time travel?” Isaac asked.
George doubted it. “Not until time progresses back to the point where Finn has again invented the portal, and even then, few people believed him. He gave us well over two decades’ notice, offering to escort people back in time when they were ready, and only twenty to twenty-five thousand people took him up on it.”
“You believed him.”
“The moment I heard the announcement, I knew it was true.”
He’d known Will as a small child; he was terrified of the little boy with the sad eyes, but a single encounter on the playground, when Will read George’s mind, convinced him of the otherness of the family. He also knew Will was brilliant and his parents were working on a solution to the meteor discovered a hundred years earlier, and then twenty years later determined to be on trajectory to collide with earth. If they had Will’s brain, and even a chance of thwarting that rock, then surely they had the ability to do exactly as they promised: move people to the past to protect them.
“So they took you to Las Vegas and just left you there?”
They’d taken George and his brother Isaac to San Francisco. Both had all the paperwork necessary to survive two hundred years in the past, as well as enough cash to live on for a few years. Newly graduated with a masters degree in Cybernetics, George easily found work and in the twenty years before 17-year-old Will popped up, he’d made a name for himself.
“One of the things we’d sworn to before leaving home was to stay away from Will. We knew he would arrive as the Emperor, connected to the royal family, but unless he reached out, we were to go nowhere near him. Given that I had my own reasons to avoid him, when his name bubbled up in the news, I transferred to the Vegas office, just to avoid running into him.”
Logically, he knew that 17-year-old Will wouldn’t recognize George in his 30s and might not have recognized him even if they were still the same age, but it wasn’t a risk he was willing to take.
“You hated him, right?”
“That’s an understatement.”
Also, that was one of the things Isaac didn’t need to know more about. At 7, George had actively tried to kill Will, and until they reconnected in Will’s 40s, George still held hope that one day the Emperor would spontaneously combust.
He was not a rational person, and knew it.
He was also working on that.
“And that’s the guy you want me to live with if you die,” Isaac said, chuckling. “Will? Sure, hate the guy, but I’m totally giving him my kid if I croak.”
“Well. When you say it like that…”
“I’m glad you don’t hate him anymore. My life here would suck without Rhys and his brother and sister.”
“You have other friends.”
“Not like them. Definitely not as smart or as interesting.”
“He’s definitely my most interesting student,” George said. “He challenges everything and soaks up the data like a sponge. I honestly wish I had more time to spend on the things he’d like to explore, just to craft a more advanced class for students like him.”
That was the downside to two jobs. George had responsibilities other than teaching cybernetics to teenagers, and one of those responsibilities required him to travel to Elysium to oversee expanded security protocols and testing of rescue equipment.
In a few years, he’d be able use a transporter to get there. Work all day, come home at night, and never have to wait for the official shuttle to take him there.
The world had just gotten a preview of that, and the excitement was palpable.
Isaac got up, and then picked me up from the spot on the edge of the table I’d been waiting quietly. “Okay, I need to get him home. Watching us eat was probably torture for him and I didn’t know what was safe to give him.”
“I admit, I’m surprised you brought him.”
“He climbed my leg and arm, grabbed onto my shoulder, and wouldn’t let go. I don’t think I had much choice. Aisha finally just said to take him. It was easier than arguing with him.”
I hadn’t gone for the food.
I went because there was sadness leeching from Isaac, and I wanted a chance at finding out why. Now I had an idea, but I wasn’t sure it was the only reason.
Still, it was a piece of the puzzle.
I’d hide it under the sofa with the rest of the puzzle pieces I’d stolen over the years.
If anyone wanted them back, cripes, just move the damn thing and vacuum.