“I’ve got a headache, Ashe.”
“Small wonder, Murdock. The virtual interface takes some getting used to. Plugs right into your brain, like that old movie ‘The Matrix,’ but without the spike in your skull.”
Gordon Ashe was just a few inches shorter than Ross Murdock, but his skin was much darker and looked almost like it was weathered to leather. The archeologist was in his forties but looked older. He was a veteran at Operation Retrograde and was supposed to have five jumps to his credit. He even helped set up the trading post to which, on Ashe’s next jump to Bronze Age Britain, would find Murdock accompanying him.
But only if they had absolute proof that this was the right location and time.
“Martial arts, interactive language classes, cultural classes, hell, the cafeteria here only serves me food that those traders ate four-thousand years ago.”
“It’s only been a week, Murdock. Give it time.”
“Time. Is that a joke?”
“If you don’t learn, you’ll end up like Hardy. He got careless and paid the price.”
Hardy. The mere mention of his name sent the proverbial shiver down Murdock’s spine, and Murdock was no coward.
Hardy. He came back from the past barely alive. No one was allowed to see him, but rumors out of medical said he had been tortured by a group of Yamnan hunter-gatherers. He did something wrong, gave himself away. That’s how dangerous the past is, how dangerous it is to travel back and pretend to belong.
One wrong word, a slip in a cultural norm or ritual behavior was all it would take.
“Thanks, Ashe. I’ll keep that in mind.” Murdock saw Kurt Teuteberg at the door to the corridor. “I’ve got to get some rest. See you later.”
“Sure, Murdock.” Ashe maintained eye contact as his companion stood. “See you tomorrow.”
Ashe was no fool. Murdock knew he suspected something, but with any luck, it would all be over before he knew what it was.
As Murdock approached the exit, he saw Teuteberg turn and walk away. He followed the other man down the hallway toward the living quarters, and then as he suddenly veered left into another corridor.
“Sure you weren’t followed, Murdock?”
“I’m no amateur, Teuteberg. Are you sure your plan will work?”
“I can get out of here, but I can’t do it alone. I need someone who can disable the security system. I can drive the Snowcat and I know the pattern of the mine field. If you hold up your end, we’ll both get out of here with our skins intact. After what happened to Hardy, I don’t want any part of this place.”
Murdock involuntarily shivered again. “Same here. When?”
“Meet me day after tomorrow, 2330 hours outside the transport bay. I’ll make sure the guard is properly drugged.”
“And we’re just going to drive out of here? The Snowcat will run out of fuel before we get anywhere.”
“I’ve got friends on the outside, Murdock. They’ll meet us.”
“With what, a plane?”
“You’ll see, Murdock. Just do your job and I’ll get us both out of this mess.”
Teuteberg walked past Murdock back into the main corridor. Ross waited a minute and then went in the same direction and back to his spartan quarters. Major Kelgarries had him moved out of his cell after the second night, but his current room wasn’t much better. Kelgarries said unnecessary luxuries would only soften him up when he needed to learn to be as tough as possible.
The Major wasn’t just blowing smoke and he practiced what he expected out of his people. Kelgarries was Murdock’s martial arts and survival training instructor. In the last week, Kelgarries put more bruises on the twenty-eight year old thief than he’d gotten in all his fights during the prior decade.
Two nights later, Murdock was skulking down the hall leading to the transport bay when he saw Teuteberg standing over the unconscious form of an M.P. As Ross approached, he saw Kurt bend over the soldier and pull the keycard off of his belt. He swiped it against the sensor and the door opened with a hushed expelling of air.
“Help me drag him inside, quickly.”
“Keep your shirt on, Teuteberg.”
Kurt tied up and gagged the M.P., and then locked him in a storage closet while Murdock sat in front of one of the computer consoles.
Teuteberg was loading emergency supplies, food, a medical kit, extra fuel, into the back of one of the Snow Caterpillar transports. “You can disable the alarms, right? If not, they’ll sound the second I open the outer doors.”
“I’m halfway there now, Teuteberg. I’m a professional thief, remember? I know my job.”
“Excellent. I knew I chose the right partner.”
Less than ten minutes later, Kurt fired up the engines of the Snowcat and opened the bay doors. The temperature dropped instantly as an icy wind rushed in.
“Time to leave.”
The Cat surged forward across cold concrete and then onto solid ice. The wind was strong enough to shake even the heavy Cat and snow began to fall.
“Perfect night for a getaway.”
“Don’t forget the minefield, Teuteberg.”
“Of course not. I’ve memorized the pattern.” After several seconds, Kurt abruptly jerked the wheel to the left, and then seven seconds later to the right. He kept up the zigzag pattern and Murdock thought he was going to lose his dinner, such as it was.
“Can you tell me now why you’re sure they won’t follow us? Even without the alarms, it won’t take them long to discover we’re missing.”
“I arranged for a little power failure, Murdock. I’ve been stationed at Operation Retrograde long enough to find out how to access the power plant. It will only be for about six hours. Long enough to keep them busy. Emergency backups will make sure no one freezes to death.”
An hour later, the Cat was moving along steadily over flat ground, the only illumination coming from the tractor’s headlights.
“I told you we’d get away with it.”
“We haven’t escaped yet. If your friends don’t show up, we’ll either get captured or freeze to death out here.”
“Nothing will go wrong, Murdock. Frankly, I thought a man of your reputation would have a little more steel in his spine.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my spine, Teuteberg. I was a successful thief because I was always cautious. Getting cocky gets you caught or killed.”
“And yet you did get caught, which is why you find yourself in my company.”
“What about you, Kurt?”
A variation on a theme, Murdock. Like you, I have a shady past and the government made me a deal. But after Hardy, I realized the price is too high, far too high.”
As the sun broke over the horizon, Teuteberg checked the GPS one last time and then brought the Cat to a halt.
“Why are we stopping? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“Believe it or not Murdock, this is where my friends said they’d meet us.”
“Here? Are you crazy. There’s nothing here but ice and snow.”
“Well, not precisely, Murdock.” Kurt checked his watch. “We made good time. They should be here soon, maybe twenty minutes.”
It was eighteen minutes later when Murdock felt what he thought was an earthquake.”
“What the fu…?”
“Relax, Murdock. My friends are announcing their arrival.”
“What, by bombing us?”
“Opposite direction actually.”
Up ahead and to the right, several thousand meters away, the ice began to rise and buckle.
“It’s uh, it’s uh…”
It’s a nuclear powered Akula class Soviet submarine, Murdock. Our ticket out of here, as you Americans might say.”
“Soviet…then you’re a…”
“I was positioned such that I would be asked to volunteer for Operation Retrograde. Since then I’ve been gathering information. Unfortunately Major Kelgarries was beginning to suspect I was not who and what I appeared to be and it was time for me to be extracted.”
Murdock looked at the now fully visible conning tower of the submarine and then back at Teuteberg. “So what happens now?”
“Well, I can offer you a job, Murdock.”
“For the Soviets? As a spy?”
Oh please, Murdock. I know of your background. You are a thief for hire. You’ll work for anyone for a price. Working for us will be no different…or do you need further incentive?”
Ross watched as Teuteberg drew a pistol from the inside of his parka. “They are waiting for us to exit the Cat. Shall we go?”
Murdock opened his door and carefully stepped down onto the ice.
“Step away from the Cat, Murdock.”
Ross moved a few meters away as Teuteberg followed him out of the vehicle’s passenger side.
Murdock turned to see a party of six from the submarine approach in the distance.
“I brought some material information with me. It’s in the back. We’ll wait for my comrades to arrive.”
Murdock looked at his watch and seemed to be listening for something. “I don’t think we’ll have the time.”
From the north a small whine rapidly grew to become a deafening roar as four F-15 Eagles overflew their position. Teuteberg involuntarily looked up, giving Murdock the opening to grab the other man’s arm. His own native skills plus recent training made it nearly child’s play for Ross to disarm his distracted opponent.
In the scramble, Murdock was able to grab the gun and point it at his adversary. “Knock it off, Teuteberg. The cavalry’s here and you’re way outnumbered.”
Kurt looked back at the sub long enough to see the shore party reboarding. He expected the sub to depart but after long minutes, it didn’t. The four jets were “orbiting” over the Akula class boat.
Then the spy looked in the opposite direction. A helicopter was arriving and there were six Cats approaching.
“No doubt loaded with troops, Murdock.”
The helicopter landed not far behind their Cat. Four soldiers with automatic rifles emerged with Major Kelgarries right behind them.
The soldiers quickly took Teuteberg into custody and when the six Cats arrived, they escorted him to the nearest one which would be his ride back to base and incarceration until arrangements for his transport to a more permanent prison could be made.
“Good work taking out Teuteberg, Murdock. The subcutaneous transmitter we put in your arm led us right to you.” The Major and the thief shook through heavily padded gloves. “The jets will hold the sub here until reinforcements can arrive. The Soviet Captain has already been informed by radio that three Seawolf-class subs are approaching them from under the ice. Capturing a state of the art Soviet sub and her crew is pretty good work for one day.”
“C’mon. Let’s get back aboard the chopper. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”
Two weeks later, Ashe was training Murdock in his particular brand of archaeology, specifically with the few pieces of the alien Forerunner technology they’d let him have access to.
“You’re right, Ashe. The minute you see this stuff, the circuit configurations, the materials, you know it’s alien. It’s easy to spot.”
Murdock was turning what looked like a small circuit board about the size of a cell phone’s sim card over and over in his hands.
“Why did you do it, Murdock?”
“Do what?” Ross put the circuit board down on the work bench in front of him and looked at Ashe.
“Work for Kelgarries to capture the Soviet spy? That’s not your reputation.”
“Why do you care about my reputation, Ashe?”
“Because we’re partners. We have to depend on one another. In the past, our lives will be in each other’s hands.”
“I don’t know. Well, I do. I hate running away.”
“You’ve escaped the authorities in the past when you were a thief, Murdock. Why was this different?”
“Ashe, when I take a job, I see it through, no matter what. Once I tell a customer ‘yes,’ I don’t back out and I told Kelgarries ‘yes’.”
“What about Hardy?”
“I’ve never played it safe before, Ashe. Sure, I’m cautious, but there’s always a risk. If I was afraid of getting hurt, I’d never have become a thief.”
“Traveling back in time is the most dangerous game, Ross. When you took a job to steal, you did your research, learned all you could about your target. You told me this, right?”
“So we can only know so much about each period we travel back into. Even having scouts and trading posts in a dozen different time periods and six geographic areas, we still have information gaps.”
“You’ve gone back five times. You’ve survived. You came back each time in one piece.”
“Keep studying, Murdock. I never said there weren’t close calls. Each time any of us go back, it could be the last. Hardy was lucky. We managed to find him before they killed him. Four others never made it back to their rendezvous points. They’re lost to us, lost in time forever.”
“Hey! You two going to talk all night long?”
Ashe and Murdock looked to see Major Kelgarries calling to them from the doorway.
“What can we do for you, Major.” Ashe waved the officer over.
Kelgarries stood behind them. “Ashe, how’s Murdock doing identifying the Forerunner tech?”
“I can certify him qualified to identify an authentic artifact. He’s a thief. He knows the difference between the genuine article and a fake.”
“Good.” The Major turned to Murdock. “Get your bags packed. I’m sending you out.”
“No, not in time. We’ve got intel that a smuggler got his hands on a real Forerunner device. He’s willing to sell it. We’ll get you to Anchorage and from there you’ll catch a flight to England. Your contact will meet you in Dover two days from now.”
“What about Ashe? He’s a lot more…”
“Stow it, Murdock. Ashe stays. This is your mission. Besides, won’t it be nice to go someplace where you’re not always freezing your ass off?”
Two days later, Ross Murdock was sitting in the White Horse Pub in Dover waiting for the smuggler while sipping on an ale and silently cursing Gordon Ashe for staying behind at the base.
This story brings us full circle to my flash fiction story The Artifact. Chronologically, Murdock’s first adventure is in The Recruit, and then this story, and then “The Artifact”. The fourth entry in this series is The Traders which reveals the real purpose of Operation Retrograde, though not all of it.
After that, who knows? Maybe you’ll want me to write more of this set of short stories which are an homage to Andre Norton’s (Alice Mary Norton’s) 1958 science fiction novel The Time Traders.