The Sixth Story in the Adventures of Ross Murdock
The modern city of Dover had been inhabited since the Stone Age, so by the advent of the Bronze Age, it was a thriving community, one which the three agents from the future were determined to avoid. Ashe, Murdock, and McNeil, or rather Assa, Rossa, and Maka, in the guise of Beaker traders, stayed away from the well-used trails that led in and out of Dover in search of a mystery.
This was circa 2,000 BCE and they had been sent back in time by Operation Retrograde to recover technology and perhaps even the location of a spaceship left behind by the alien race they called the Forerunners. However, their outpost, disguised as a Beaker trading post, had been destroyed by time traveling Soviet agents using weapons from the present, leaving the trio fugitives, not only from Red spies, but from the local clans who believed they were cursed by the gods. Their only hope was to hold out until the extraction team aboard the nuclear submarine USS Thetis returned just under two weeks from now and they could be transported out of Britain and back to the time gate at their base in the Arctic.
4,000 years in the future, Ross Murdock had met a smuggler at modern Dover’s White Horse Pub and acquired a Forerunner artifact, one he had been told was found very near their current location. The artifact was concrete proof that this was the correct place and time period where more alien technology could be found. Now the three covert agents had to locate the cache where that artifact had first been discovered and somehow prevent Soviet agents from looting it.
“So where are we going again, Rossa?”
“I told you, the location where the smuggler said the artifact had been discovered was included with the device itself. Kelgarries made some discrete inquiries to various security agencies, and it seems Alex Besnard, the smuggler, hadn’t actually been to the site where the Forerunner cache had been found. He’d intercepted a courier and got the location out of him.”
“The supposed location.”
“That’s right, Assa. Besnard may not have realized he was being lied to or maybe he didn’t care. He’d get paid for turning the artifact over to us regardless.”
“So that’s why we’re staring at a grassy hillside instead of at the entrance to a cave, Rossa.”
“Right, Maka. This is where the Forerunner cache is supposed to be.”
Maka, or Brian McNeil, had been one of the three time agents assigned to the doomed Breaker trading outpost some kilometers from Dover. He also was the only survivor, and the experience left him something less than flexible under the current circumstances.
Assa and Rossa had their standard ration kits with them and that, plus their hunting and trapping skills, had kept them fed for the past sixteen days. Two days ago, Assa had spotted a family traveling toward Dover a day’s walk out of the town. Posing as a trader going the opposite direction, he slyly queried them for information about two or three men who had encountered trouble. It seemed that the news of Assa’s cursed clan traveled fast, requiring them to sustain themselves by their own skills and wits rather than purchase or trade for provisions.
“Can you think of any other information that came with the artifact that might help us locate the cache?”
“I’m thinking, Maka. Give me a minute.”
“Relax, you two. If we can’t find it, and if you think Besnard gave the Soviets the same information he gave you Rossa, then the Reds won’t have any better luck finding the cache than we are.”
“Yeah, but for all we know, there may be Red agents in Dover. Maybe they’ll find a clue from someone in town that will give them a leg up.”
Maka gave Rossa a look of animosity. When they first met, the two men were cautiously civil to one another, but over the past two weeks, Maka had become increasingly tense and short-tempered. He still treated Assa with respect because the archaeologist was a team supervisor, but Maka’s disdain of Rossa was becoming all too apparent.
“I’m going to get closer and scout around. The Forerunners wouldn’t have just left their cache lying around in an open cave. It’s probably hidden. Maybe I can find out where.”
Assa silently nodded his assent and Rossa stealthily departed.
“Are you sure we can trust this guy? You said he was a professional thief.”
“We can trust him. Just because he’s a thief doesn’t mean he’s dishonest, Maka.”
Assa smiled to himself but Maka scowled and grunted. He was still worried the Soviets were either closing in on them or might just stumble across them while searching for the cache. Either way he figured they’d be dead.
Years of experience observing a target before a job gave Murdock not only a keen attention to detail, but the ability to see what was out of place or unusual, even if it was very subtle.
The pattern on a particular rock outcropping could easily have been made by normal weathering, but it seemed familiar to Rossa. He risked standing out in the open in broad daylight to stare at it for long moments.
When Ashe had been training Murdock in how to assess the authenticity of Forerunner technology, the thief had commented about how distinctive the materials and circuitry configurations were. They were so obviously alien that they were easy to spot.
One of the other things he’d noticed was a set of symbols, design patterns on each of the artifacts he’d been allowed to examine. They might be a language or some form of labeling, but it was one of those patterns that Rossa was looking at on the rock face in front of him.
The twist was, it wasn’t a rock on the hill Besnard said the artifact was found inside. It was on a collection of boulders behind it. Rossa had turned away from the hill for a moment to scan his surrounding when he happened to see it.
“So the courier gave Besnard a close approximation of the location but managed to throw him off by a few hundred meters.”
Rossa returned to his companions and gave them the news.
“So what, Rossa? Even if that’s where the cache is, how to we get in? Dig? I seem to have left my shovels and pickaxes 4,000 years in the future. Besides, even if that smuggler gave the Reds the wrong location, it’s still too close to the right one. If we hang around here, they’re sure to find us and the artifacts.”
“Then I suppose we’d better act fast.” Assa surprised both Maka and Rossa. “Show me where you found the symbol, Rossa.”
The thief led his two partners in time back to the rock face and the alien symbol.
“Keep watch,” Assa commanded quietly. Training and reflexes took over and both Rossa and Maka were scanning the area for any movement that might indicate they had company. So far nothing.
Out of the corner of his eye, Rossa saw Assa pull something out of his clothing. He remembered the Quartermaster issuing a package to Assa right before they went through the time gate together.
Rossa turned and saw Assa holding a small Forerunner device in the palm of his right hand. It was about the size of a silver dollar (Murdock had once stolen a small but valuable coin collection for a numismatic client about eight years ago or 4,000 years from now) The circuit configuration was clearly Forerunner as was the symbol at the top, identical to the one on the rock in front of Ashe.
Both symbols simultaneously glowed white light for an instant, and then all three men heard a mechanical sound, like a latch moving, followed by a mechanized humming. Fortunately, the trio were standing in close proximity to each other and at almost the exact center of the elevator platform.
All three nearly lost their balance at the sudden, unexpected downward movement, then they were descending. First light came from the opening above, then the opening closed and they were in darkness, and then some form of artificial illumination came on.
Rossa found he’d been holding his breath and started to inhale and exhale at a slow steady pace. The platform stopped with a slight jolt. A door opened to Assa’s left. There was only a single room, poorly illuminated, suggesting the power source might be old and no longer operating anywhere near its normal capacity.
The three cautiously stepped off the platform. The room was round, about six meters across. There were consoles and tables regularly spaced and ordered, each standing a little over a meter and a half high, and various displays on the surrounding walls.
Rossa looked down at the surface of one of the tables, It was transparent and inside, among other objects, he saw something familiar. “The artifact. The one discovered in the present. It’s here 4,000 years in the past.”
“Don’t touch anything. If we move something, or Heaven forbid, activate something, we can’t possibly anticipate the result.”
“So Assa, when were you going to tell us about your Forerunner device?”
“I wasn’t going to Maka, unless I had to use it like I just did a few minutes ago. As far as I know, no one’s found an intact and technologically active Forerunner cache before. The researchers thought that if we ever did, the “coin” I was issued would act like a key. Seems they were right.”
“So, if we can’t take anything, why are we here?”
Assa again reached into his clothing and took out another piece of technology, but this time completely human. “I’m going to record the contents of this room and hope we find something that’ll be useful.” The archaeologist started a slow sweep of the room with his hand-held device. It vaguely reminded Murdock of a sensing device he’d seen on an old TV show when he was a kid, “Star Trek” or something like that.
While Assa was working, both Rossa and Maka made a visual inventory of the room. On one portion of the wall were dimly lit representations of different portions of the globe, but the images were blurry, as variable colors were overlaid but not precisely aligned.
It took Assa over thirty minutes to thoroughly cover the modestly sized room and its contents.
“Okay, that’s it. Time to leave.”
The three stepped back on the elevator platform again. Nothing happened.
“Are we stuck down here?”
Assa pulled out the Forerunner “key” again and passed it near the pattern of lines near the opening. Again, lights simultaneously shone on both the key and the symbol on the wall of the lift. There was a humming sound and then a jolt and they started to go up. Near the top, the lights went out, and then there was an opening above them letting sunlight come in.
Once on the surface, Assa, Rossa, and Maka stepped off the platform which now was indistinguishable from any other mound of grass and dirt around them.
“Maybe not clever enough, Maka. The Soviets have had access to Forerunner tech longer than we have. If we figured out what the key is and how to use it, then they probably have, too.”
“So what do we do about it, Assa?”
In response, Assa took the Forerunner key, which was still in his hand, flipped it to the opposite side, and then pressed and held it against the symbol etched in the stone in front of him, which was evidently the “lock”.
More clicking a whirring sounds and then the ground beneath them shuddered.
“What did you do?”
“If the eggheads are right, I essentially broke the lock. Now the key won’t open it.”
“What? Now how do we get back in?”
“We don’t Maka, and neither do the Reds if they happen to find this place and know how to use the key.”
“What if they show up with digging equipment, what if…”
“Enough. I was given orders to recon any Forerunner technology cache or similar container, take a complete scan of the contents, and then by any means necessary, prevent the Soviets access while, if at all possible, preserving that technology. Hopefully 4,000 years from now, the archaeological team from Cambridge will discover this mound and Rossa’s artifact.”
“Knock it off, Maka. You heard Assa. The best thing we can do right now is get out of here. If Red agents are in the area, then we don’t want to pinpoint the cache by standing on top of it.”
“Who do you think you’re talking to, Rossa? You’re nothing but a…”
“That’s enough you two. Rossa’s right. We need to leave. If you have any problems with what I’ve done, file a complaint when we get back to base.”
The three moved out, but while Assa was in the lead, Rossa made sure to bring up the rear so he could keep his eye on Maka.
It was late afternoon and they decided on a grove hidden inside a small depression in the landscape as their campsite. They had sufficient water with them and dried quail to supplement their rations.
Maka kept his mouth shut for the rest of the evening and as a precaution, each of them stood a watch on guard duty.
They broke camp the next morning, refilled their water containers at a stream about an hour later and moved on. Their need for concealment required they move more slowly than they’d like, but even then, they’d still make it to their extraction point on time.
Five days before extraction, Assa took the risk of sending Rossa into a remote village to trade for some dried meat and a few vegetables, and maybe get some information.
Tedo, the old merchant bartered well and it took one bronze coin and two of tin to buy what Rossa needed.
“I tell you I wouldn’t travel alone as you do these days. Frightful rumors of fire coming from the gods consuming strangers. You are either a brave or foolish man, Rossa.”
“I told you, I travel with a small band of traders, their women and children, we are safe together and plan to open a post up to the north.”
“That’s well for you, but you’re not the only people I’ve seen journeying to and from unknown places lately.”
“What say you, Tedo?”
“Three days ago. Five men. Dressed like traders, same as you. Odd accents, odd as your’s but different. They were looking for companions, two men, maybe three. A good thing you’re traveling with families instead of with just men, or I might wonder if they were looking for you, eh?”
“I thought you said they were looking for companions.”
“That’s what they said, Rossa, but that’s not what they meant. I’ve seen that look in men’s eyes before. They weren’t traders. They were hunters, hunters out for blood, if you take my meaning.”
Rossa knew Tedo was intelligent and observant and probably could see through his disguise as well as he could those other men. Soviet agents looking for them, hoping they knew how to find the Forerunner cache.
“Good to do business with you, Tedo. If I ever come this way again, perhaps we can trade for more supplies and even some news.”
“In a place as small as this, we thrive on what visitors can tell us with their speech and otherwise. Farewell, Rossa.”
Rossa made it back to camp without incident, but on the way he kept looking behind him, listening carefully, seeking any sign that someone might be following him.
“This is disturbing. I hope the Reds don’t return to Tedo’s place before we can leave.”
“I told you sending Rossa into that village was a mistake, Assa.”
“It’s okay, Maka. We have supplies and we have information. Now we just need to stay out of sight until extraction. Only five more days.”
Ashe decided to risk arriving at the extraction point on the beach a full day ahead of schedule, mainly because he didn’t think McNeil could stand hiding in the wilderness much longer.
“It’ll be good to get back on the sub, Ashe.”
Maka was using English again. He thought the need for subterfuge was over. Rossa had been repeatedly drilled that you only dropped cover once back on the sub. Until then, you were a trader and only a trader. The former thief kept his mouth shut. Saying anything would only antagonize Maka, and right now another argument would be a dangerous distraction.
The three of them were hiding among the dunes above the shoreline. It was only hours to extraction. The sub was probably approaching right now. They’d been eating cold rations and conserving the last of their water. They were going home. Even McNeil seemed more relaxed as minutes and hours passed.
“You might as well stand up, gentlemen. We have infrared scopes and our firearms are 4,000 years ahead of your flint-tipped arrows.”
The voice behind them was speaking 21st century English with a Russian accent.
Assa looked at the eastern sky. Maybe fifteen minutes or less until extraction. Captain Lewis was probably scanning the shoreline right now through the sub’s periscope. If he could only signal the Thetis somehow.
Rossa’s face was tense but he was in control. Maka’s eyes were darting from side to side, he was sweating profusely and was on the verge of panic.
“Come on out,” urged the voice from the darkness. “Or would you prefer we fire a few warning shots to assure you of our sincerity.”
Automatic fire raked the sand and grass on the dunes six meters away.
“We know you are unarmed so resistance is impossible. Please come out and I promise we will not hurt you. All we want is information.”
“Assa,” Rossa whispered in the older man’s ear. “Slip down the back and get to shore. Signal the boat. All that matters is that you get out of here with the information.”
“Normally, that would make good sense, Rossa, but the Soviets aren’t stupid. I’m sure they cut off that avenue of escape before announcing themselves. Only one thing to do.”
Assa pulled out his advanced sensing device. This was the first time Rossa had a chance to see it close up. It was obviously American technology, but there were design aspects that suggested it had been inspired by Forerunner artifacts. Was this what Operation Retrograde was all about, using alien technology to enhance and advance our own?
“Screw this shit.” McNeil was whispering in English and Rossa realized that while he’d been distracted, Maka had moved off several meters toward the shore side of the dunes.
“Get back here, Maka,” Assa called out just loud enough for the other agent to hear him.
“This is your last warning,” The Russian announced. “Come out or we will come in after you.”
McNeil stood and ran over the dunes in the direction of the water. Just before he went over the side and would have been out of sight, a single shot rang out and he stumbled, and then fell over the edge.
“Maka!” Assa resisted the urge to stand and run after his companion. Instead he turned his attention back to the device in his hand. “It’s got a destruct on it, Rossa. I can’t let it fall into their hands. Assa moved his index finger toward latch on the side and flipped it open exposing a button.
“Wait a few seconds more, Assa, maybe…”
“Nothing doing, Rossa. It’s a small charge, but powerful enough to incinerate the device…and end us. No capture, Rossa.”
Murdock knew the risks. Major Kelgarries had told him that this mission into the past would be his first and could be his last. As a thief Ross had taken more risks than he could count. He was cautious but there was always danger. That was part of the thrill. Time travel was the biggest thrill of all, but up until this moment, he never really thought it was going to end.
Both men reflexively ducked as automatic gunfire rang out from either side of them. It wasn’t coming from where the Russians were, either land side or from the sea.
Rossa could hear some shouting in Russian from where the voice had been taunting them moments ago. Then figures erupted from the left and right firing at the retreating Russians.
“The extraction team.”
One of the men broke off from the rest and approached them. Crawling down beside Ashe and Murdock he said, “Lieutenant Nguyen, Marine Corps. Captain Lewis spotted Russian troops moving along the shore near your position and sent us in. Let’s get you the hell out of here.”
Ashe pressed the latch on the sensor device back in place and returned it to the inside of his cloak.
Murdock took a deep breath, which was the only sign he allowed himself to express of his relief at not dying.
A day later, the Thetis was three-hundred feet below the surface of the North Atlantic on course for base and the time gate.
“Medic’s got McNeil patched up. His right arm and shoulder will be out of commission for a while, but I’m told he should get full or most of the use back after surgery.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“Good to have you back on board, Gordon. You too, Murdock.”
The boat’s Skipper left them alone in their quarters. Ashe sat heavily on his bunk. “McNeil will never go on another mission. Sometimes it breaks a man. I’ve seen it before.”
“At least he’s alive and in a lot better shape than Hardy was when he was extracted.”
Murdock was still standing, looking down at Ashe. This was the team leader’s sixth jump. Ross wondered if he’d make a seventh.
“Is it worth it, Gordon?”
It was as if Ashe realized Murdock was in the room for the first time.
“What? You mean the missions?”
“Yeah. Why are we even doing this? Two agents dead, McNeil a broken man. We both nearly buy it ourselves, and for what? Kelgarries won’t tell except to say it’s important, saving the world important.”
“It is, Ross.”
Murdock stood looking at Ashe for the amount of time it took for him to take a breath. “You know, don’t know. You know why we’re doing this, what we’re looking for.”
“No, he has no idea I found out, or rather, figured it out. The information on the sensing device will confirm it.”
“Do you really want to know, Ross?”
“Is that a trick question.”
“The answer to that question is way above Top Secret, Ross. It’s worth your life and mine just me telling you this much.”
“You haven’t told me shit, Gordon. Why the hell are we traveling back in time looking for Forerunner technology. Why are the Soviets so intent on stopping us, even to the point of risking changing history by taking modern weaponry back to the Bronze Age.”
“They already have changed history, Ross!”
Silence paused both men, as if the angel of death stood between them.
When he spoke next, Ashe was more composed. “We don’t know what changed, not exactly. The only thing we’re sure is happening that shouldn’t be is global warming and its effects. Something the Soviets did, maybe in their initial time experiments, maybe looking for Forerunner technology, or even just discovering the Forerunners exist changed the global climate. It shouldn’t be getting hotter, Ross. The world is getting too hot. The government has been releasing only part of what it knows to the public.”
“What are you saying Ashe? I thought global warming was the man-made result of centuries of industrialization.”
“I’m saying we don’t know the exact cause, but if we don’t find a way to reverse it, the human race will be wiped out in a matter of decades.”
“So why don’t the Soviets help? After all, they’ll die too.”
“Not if they can crack the secret of a Forerunner spaceship first and reach another world. They don’t have to care about this one if they can colonize another solar system. Ross, we’re the only ones standing between the human race and extinction. If I’m right, this device holds the key to both saving the world and traveling the stars. We can’t let the Soviets stop us. We can’t let them get their hands on this.”
Ashe noticed Murdock seemed to suddenly be distracted by something. The younger man put a finger to his lips, then silently turned. Quickly he opened their cabin door.
“Oh, hi. Just came by to see how the two of you were doing.”
“Fine, Lieutenant Nguyen. Won’t you come in?”
“No thanks, Murdock. I was just passing by and thought I check in for a second. You must have good ears. I was just about to knock.”
“Comes with the training, Lieutenant.”
“Yeah, I guess it does. Have a good evening Murdock, Ashe.”
“You too, Nguyen.”
The Marine officer turned and walked back down the passageway toward the bow. Murdock closed the door again. He knew the Lieutenant had been standing outside for more than just a second. How much had he heard and did he have accomplices on board?
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 the series is Ghosts.