The Fifth Story in the Adventures of Ross Murdock
Assa and Rossa stood on a rise and gazed at smoke ascending from a burnt ruin at the far side of the valley. At that distance, there was no obvious sign of what had caused their trading post to burn to the ground. Lightning maybe? No people or other evidence of attack was visible.
“We proceed carefully, Rossa,” Assa hissed. Murdock’s senior partner moved forward cautiously and Ross, or rather Rossa followed. It was more important than ever for the twenty-eight year old former thief for hire to think of himself only as a Beaker trader, that he was the apprentice of his master Assa, and that this was the only life he had ever lived. Murdock pushed away his memories of the 21st century and continued to follow Assa from one point of concealment to the next on the future Island of Britain four-thousand years before he was born.
An hour later, they had crossed the valley and were standing just meters from the still smoldering ruin and ashes of the trading post which had served as a small outpost for the investigating temporal team from Operation Retrograde.
“I don’t get it. If this had been done by a raiding party or one of the local clans, in victory, they wouldn’t have hidden their tracks, and yet there aren’t any. No signs of any war party coming or departing.”
“Agreed Assa, but there’s something else. The pattern around the post suggests a crater as if it had been…”
“Explosives. The Soviets. Here?” Assa sank to his knees as if grief were a tangible weight upon him, crushing even the need for caution. “McNeil, Tomlinson, Koester. Those three were ours. The rest of them were actual Beakers, including women and children. All exterminated.”
“When do you think?”
“Within the past week probably, most likely by night. Since no one goes out after dark, the Reds could be assured to get everyone. Locals fear the spirits and are always indoors before nightfall.” Assa recovered himself and stood.
“Now what, Assa? Our contacts here are dead and we’ve got a month before extraction. If this really was caused by the Soviets, not only did they figure out the trading post was one of ours, but they could be watching us right now.”
“Noden. Yes, that’s it. His is the closest village. We respond just as we should. We come to find our outpost burned, our kinsmen dead. We are grief-stricken, outraged, terrified.”
Noden’s village was almost half a day away on foot and both Assa and Rossa did not have to feign fatigue and worry when they finally arrived. As they approached, children playing in the fields outside the nearest buildings saw them and ran. What looked like a wolf but smaller ran toward them baring fangs and snarling at the two men. One of the villagers was barely restraining the animal by a length of skin around its neck.
“Who approaches Noden’s village?” Two other men covered in fur cloaks, one holding a spear and the other carrying a bow with the arrow nocked.
“It is Assa the Trader, friend to Noden. Three moons ago, we drank and ate together, we laughed and swore friendship.”
“That day has passed, Assa,” said the one with the bow. “Depart from us lest you bring your clan’s ill-fortune upon us.”
“What has my clan done to deserve such scorn? I have drunk blood with Noden, hunted the wild boar with him. Let me speak with the chief again to learn what tragedy has befallen my kinsmen at their place across the valley.”
“Noden wants nothing to do with you or your kinsmen, they who provoked the wrath of the storm god Lurgha who caused fire to fall out of the night sky and consume your post.”
Ashe felt as though his blood had frozen in his veins. Lurgha was one of the local gods, but what could cause fire to fall out of the sky? A rocket? A weapon from the future? Yes, of course Noden was terrified.
But what if that wasn’t the whole story?
“Assa calls upon the friendship of Noden. Let me come to him and I will speak. I will hear from the chief if he truly fears this is of Lurgha’s hand.”
“Would that I summon the chief to speak to a spirit?”
“A spirit? I? Assa is no spirit, nor is my apprentice.”
“Apprentice or demon, image of Assa. Your kinsmen are dead and mayhap you are as well. Leave us lest evil befall our place.”
“Who speaks for Noden in his own village?”
The chief was old yet robust. His voice resounding and loud, commanding respect. The three men and dog cowered when he spoke.
“Noden, we were only guarding you from spirits.”
“I have Cassca who serves the Earth Mother and who casts spells of protection over the village. Do I need the words of a fool like you, Lal?”
“Noden, it is I, Assa, your friend.”
“My eyesight hasn’t left me, Assa and I do not believe you a spirit, but your clan has been cursed by Lurgha and I have my own kin to consider.”
“Tell me then, Noden. Who saw that it was Lurgha who struck my kinsmen’s place?”
“I Cassca am witness to it.”
Cassca was the village priestess, the old woman serving the Earth Mother, goddess of fertility. She was beloved but also feared. She could bless but she could also curse.
“You may speak, Cassca.” Noden was the only man in the village who could command Cassca for if she displeased him or the crops were poor, he could cast her out and then see if the Earth Mother would protect her against bears, wolves, and storms.
“I was charting the stars in the dark of the moon, seeking portents when I saw the fire. It sprang from the highest peak of the Langdon Hills.” Cassca pointed to a well-known landmark. Assa and Rossa turned their heads to see where she was indicating.
“The fire sparked, then rose high, and with a shrill cry, the fire dove down and consumed your kinsman and their place in a single deafening roar. Certainly none but Lurgha could have brought down such fury. He must be angry at your clan indeed.”
“I have done what friendship has demanded Assa, but as chief, my bond is to my clan and my village. You and your apprentice must go.”
Ashe issued a sigh of resignation but he’d also learned much. “As you say, Noden. I give thanks and take leave of you. My apprentice and I will go.”
Assa and Rossa turned and walked back the way they came, certain the eyes of Noden, Cassca, and the others were resting upon them until they strode up the rise and then descended out of sight on the other side.
“Certainly sounds like a short-range surface-to-surface rocket to me, Rossa.”
“Do we return to the coast and wait a month for extraction? If we wait around here, those villagers might get nervous and decide to help Lurgha out.”
“It’s too late in the day to do much, Rossa. Let’s find a place to make camp. We’ll keep our fire small and try not to attract attention. Our rations will do for dinner, and we can hunt for game tomorrow.”
Ross had never gone camping as a kid. His Dad left him and Mom when he was little and Murdock hardly remembered him. Mom was too busy working three jobs to take him to the movies let alone camping. Her one true virtue was that she paid the rent, kept food on the table, and never depended on a man again like so many other women in her position did.
So Rossa bedded down for his first real night in the great outdoors of Bronze Age Britain. He’d experienced numerous simulations of such an event, but what was really lurking out there in the shadows?
Doubtless there were many forms of life behind the strange nocturnal sounds and heard but unseen movement outside the light of their fire, but by the time morning came, Rossa discovered none had bothered to eat him in his sleep.
He awoke to the sound of footfalls. There was a mild drizzle coming from low clouds and Assa returned to camp with a hare transfixed through its middle by an arrow.
They stayed at camp long enough for Rossa to skin and gut their meal and then bury it in hot coals to roast.
The two men sat silently, Assa tending to his bow. Rossa thought it a shame they had no time or place to dry the pelt. It would be worth something and then he realized he was thinking like a trader.
Assa suddenly stiffened. “Someone’s here,” he whispered to Rossa as his hand moved toward the hilt of his bronze blade.
“Assa.” A hushed voice from the brush to the left. “Thank God.”
“McNeil? Maka?” Assa used both the man’s real and cover name.
A man stood and approached. He was limping slightly. His clothes were disheveled, his hair binding missing, he had only a flint knife at his belt. His bow and arrows were gone.
Assa stood up rapidly and ran to Maka embracing him. “You’re alive. What happened? How did you survive?”
“Dumb luck, Assa.” Maka nearly collapsed by their fire pit. “I’d been returning from a trading voyage to a village in the east when I tripped, fell down into a gully, and twisted my ankle. Lost most of my gear and the injury slowed me down. Couldn’t get back to the outpost until well after dark. I was still half a kilometer away when…when…”
Maka buried his face in his hands. “It was the Soviets. It had to be. They found us somehow. The outpost was wiped out.” He looked up at Assa, tears in his eyes.
“I know. We visited Noden’s village. Their witch woman thinks it was Lurgha.”
“Good an explanation as any.” Maka’s throat produced a short, humorless chuckle. Then his gaze settled on Murdock.
“A new team member. Rossa,” Assa volunteered.
“Maka.” McNeil said his name by way of introduction and held up his right hand palm facing outward. The handshake had yet to be created.
“Rossa.” Murdock returned the gesture.
Maka turned back to the senior time traveler. “When are you scheduled for extraction?”
“We just got here yesterday morning. Twenty-nine more days. What have you been doing for the past week?”
“Four days actually. This is the fourth morning since the attack, and I’ve been hiding. mainly from the Reds in case they decided to recon for survivors. Glad I stayed undercover if the local villages think our clan is cursed by Lurgha.”
“Maka, did you see the launch point of the missile? Cassca says it was the highest peak in the Langdons.”
“Yeah. I agree. For an old broad, she’s got good eyesight, especially in this era.”
“Good. Then I suggest we make our way up there. Maybe the Reds left behind a clue about what they’re up to.”
“Are you crazy, Assa?”
“No, Maka. Calm down. It’s been four days. I’m betting the Reds are long gone and I also think they don’t have a base around here.”
“Then how did they find us?”
“There’s one way to find out. Climb the Langdons.” Assa turned to Rossa. “You up for that?”
“We’ve got thirty days. Plenty of time to kill. Why not? Beats waiting around here for Noden’s people or some other village to try and run us off or worse.”
Maka sighed. “Sure, Assa. Why the hell not? Maybe I’ve got a little more good luck to my name. But not before the rabbit finishes cooking. It smells delicious.”
The Landons were a set of low hills to the north, the highest peak being a known landmark, visible for kilometers around. The trio got a late start and found themselves only at the tallest hill’s base by sundown. On the way, Rossa practiced his skill with the bow and on his third attempt managed to bag a small pheasant. With what game they killed plus rations, they would do fine for several says.
The men made camp near a small stream so they had fresh water. The night continued to conceal her secrets as a waxing moon shone its light on the men out of time.
By noon the next day, they found what they were looking for.
“These indents in the rock indicate a portable launch platform was secured here. Burn marks are where the rocket ignited. It was definitely the Soviets.” One of Maka’s areas of expertise was munitions so he knew what to look for.
“But they couldn’t have hauled all that equipment far. If they don’t have a base nearby, how did they get it here?”
“The climb isn’t as steep on the far side of the hill, Rossa, and there’s something else. See that piece of flat land to the right? You could land a small jet there.”
“Damn, Assa. The Reds are pulling out all the stops. Rockets, jet aircraft, what the hell else do they have here?”
“We might find out if we went down there, Maka.”
Rossa was already on his feet and starting down the other side of the hill toward the nearby plateau. “Let’s go.”
Mid-afternoon saw them examining tire tracks preserved by the mud. “Looks like a small jet landed and took off from here alright. They were probably depending on local rain and wind to wipe out the evidence.”
“Terrific, Maka. What do you figure the range is for one of those things?”
“Maybe 7,000 nautical miles. Nearly 13,000 kilometers, which means it could be based from just about anywhere, Rossa.”
“Well, they couldn’t have refueled here, Maka, so the max distance would be 3,500 nautical miles one way.”
“Which means they could have made it here all the way from Mother Russia and back.”
“It also means they’re definitely not based around here and that begs the question how they found out about the trading post.”
“Beats me, Rossa.”
“What, Ashe?” McNeil slipped into English for a moment, a deadly mistake which means he was capable of more than one.
“Short range rockets, jet planes, why not radio frequency monitoring or even satellite surveillance?”
“Now we are in trouble, Assa. The trading post made regular transmissions once a week like clockwork with hidden radio equipment.”
“There’s nothing more we can do here. It’s getting late. There’s an overhang over there that’ll provide some shelter and enough spring water nearby. We’ll camp here tonight.”
“Assa, since we’ve still got plenty of time, I want to suggest another trip.”
“To where, Rossa?”
“The site near Dover. The one the smuggler in the present said the Forerunner artifact was found. It might tell us more about them and maybe it’s why the trading post was destroyed.”
“You mean to get our agents out of the way so the Reds could move in and search for it. But how would they know?”
“Assa, I’m betting my French smuggler was bought off. If he was, then the Soviets know what we know. We’ve got to keep them from finding that artifact. There’s no telling what would happen if they removed it and took it back to the present. I’d never have the encounter with the smuggler and if that happened, who knows what else about history would be changed?”
“We move out at first light. Rossa, Maka, get some sleep. We have a long trek tomorrow and for all we know, the Soviets may have already found the Forerunner cache. If they have and they’ve changed history, we might never get home.”
The previous stories in this series are:
This series was inspired by an original piece of flash fiction that led me to consider refactoring Andre Norton’s (Alice Mary Norton’s) 1958 science fiction novel The Time Traders.
The next story in my series is The Cache.