The Seventh Story in the Time Travel Adventures of Ross Murdock
“The reason I’ve invited you to this briefing is that you both already have some idea of what we’re looking for and the stakes involved, although if the higher-ups had their way, you’d both be put in Guantanamo.”
Major John Kelgarries, military commander of Operation Retrograde stood at the front of his audience in the conference room specifically addressing Gordon Ashe and Ross Murdock.
It had been several months since they returned from their mission in Bronze Age Britain and discovered the Soviets had destroyed their covert base disguised as a Beaker trading post. Ashe, Murdock, and the outpost’s only survivor McNeil had just barely escaped an armed Soviet detachment who had attempted to capture them before they could be extracted by submarine. McNeil had cracked under the physical and emotional pressure and was now off team. However, in the aftermath of their mission, the roles of Ashe and Murdock had shifted.
Ross looked around the room trying to figure out how Kelgarries found out. There were only about a dozen people present, mostly civilian administrators. Aiyana Zheutlin, head of the operation’s History department hurriedly walked in and took a seat near the back of the room. Murdock tried to get her attention, but she seemed distracted.
“I see we’ve all finally arrived.” Kelgarries was making an obvious dig at Zheutlin’s tardiness. “Let’s get started. I’ve invited the primary investigators, agents Ashe and Murdock to this meeting because of the extraordinary information they’ve acquired, some of it against security protocols. However, their upgraded clearance levels have been approved by command, and I think their involvement in this meeting will be helpful. Webb, would you bring us all up to speed on what we’ve discovered about the Forerunner tech cache?”
Kelgarries took a seat at the front of the room and another man, Miles Webb, the operation’s top security analyst stood behind the podium off to one side of the large display screen facing the audience. He picked up a remote and the screen came to life.
“As you all know from reading the preliminary report, Agents Ashe, McNeil, and Murdock discovered a Forerunner outpost near present day Dover, England. The outpost was remarkably well-preserved and Dr. Ashe was able to capture a wealth of valuable data on his sensor device.”
Murdock almost never heard of Gordon being referred to as “Dr. Ashe,” although he was aware that his partner held graduate degrees in both archaeology and ancient history, specializing in Bronze Age Europe.
“Ashe’s device cataloged a number of Forerunner devices. Appendix B of the report sitting in front of each of you describes them in detail, or at least what we’re able to understand about them. However, the single most important finding was the data the device captured from the outpost’s wall display.”
Murdock found Miles Webb about as interesting the beige colored paint that covered the walls of the conference room, but then intelligence analysts didn’t require much of a personality. As Webb continued to speak, Ross followed along by thumbing through the printed report on the small desk in front of him, but his thoughts were mainly on Zheutlin. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was bothering her.
“One of the chief features we discovered was a map of the Forerunner bases in the Indo-European region dating back to 9,600 BCE. This includes larger compounds we believe were spaceports as well as smaller outposts such as the one discovered near Dover.”
One of the things Murdock learned from the report is that the modern incarnation of that outpost was all but destroyed. Just about the only useful item the archeology team from Cambridge accidentally discovered was the artifact Ross had purchased from the French smuggler Alex Besnard at that pub in Dover months ago. The outpost, all of the Forerunner bases actually, were thought to have been constructed to survive centuries if not millenia, so it was uncertain why it had suffered such devastating degradation in the past 4,000 years. Maybe when Ashe “locked” the outpost’s entrance, he set off some destruct device, maybe local geological changes were responsible, or maybe the Forerunners themselves destroyed it to keep their technology out of human hands.
“As you can see, the Forerunner display is overlaid by several historic periods, the earliest as I said, dating back to 9,600 BCE and the most recent being circa 2,000 BCE, the period visited by our team. As you can see on the screen behind me, the greatest number of them existed in the 9,600 time period during the last ice age. There are four other time periods indicated, but as we progress toward the future, Forerunner activity decreases, and by 2,000, the only indication of their presence are several small outposts such as the aforementioned Dover installation, all of them most likely automated.”
What were the Soviets up to? They were desperate to find the Dover outpost. What did they hope to discover there that they didn’t already know? Were they aware of the map and were trying to find the locations of Forerunner bases in the past, or did they already know and were trying to prevent the Americans from also discovering that information?
“We’ve had the two nuclear submarines operating in that areas of the spaceports, the Thetis and the Monkfish, attempting to detect any evidence of Soviet activity. Using networked submarine drones, Captain Lewis of the Thetis detected radio and thermal signatures here.”
Webb pressed a button on his remote and the display showed a coastal area on the Baltic Sea north of present day Stockholm.
“According to Captain Lewis’s report, a significant Soviet presence exists at that location, which is on top of what we one of the three spaceports we believe existed during the last ice age. The most disturbing bit of data we acquired was that the thermal and energy signatures detected are indicative of what we’d expect to see if a large-scale time gate were being constructed.”
Webb blanked the screen and nodded at Kelgarries before returning to his seat.
Kelgarries took the podium to deliver the final revelation.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we believe the Soviets are preparing to move an intact Forerunner spaceship from the Ice Age into the Bronze Age, and from there, into the present.”
The Major paused to let everyone absorb what he’d just said.
“We cannot under any circumstances allow the Soviets to succeed. Our mission is to send in agents to infiltrate the area, gain access to their base, and either capture or destroy the Forerunner ship as well as the Soviet time gate.”
Murdock could almost feel Ashe’s eyes on him. He turned, and true enough, his partner was looking at him as if to say “We’re going back again.”
“What do you mean you’re going? Absolutely not!”
Murdock had never seen Kelgarries lose his temper, at least not to the point of shouting, but the Major became immediately red-faced and outraged when Aiyana Zheutlin told him she’d be accompanying Ashe and Murdock on the mission to stop the Soviets.
They were in a smaller conference room than the one they’d been briefed in yesterday. The purpose of today’s meeting was to create the initial mission outline.
“I have to go, Major. Ashe and Murdock will be posing as Beaker traders but in a different cultural context. We don’t have time to retrain them and no other teams are as suitable.”
“And what do you expect to do, Aiyana?”
“I’m the only one thoroughly familiar with the cultures, languages, and territory involved. They’ll need on-the-fly support out in the field and I’m the only one here qualified to provide it.”
“It was your recommendation that we don’t send female agents into the past. I read your report. It was very convincing. A female agent not only won’t have sufficient influence to deal with primitive male-dominated cultures, but the risk of raiders capturing a female agent, raping her, and selling her into slavery is unacceptable.”
“This is not an ordinary situation, John. If I don’t go with Ashe and Murdock, the chances of them getting anywhere near the Soviet base are almost zero.”
Kelgarries was grinding his teeth and glaring at Zheutlin. He knew the 32-year-old historian, linguist, and cultural expert was right. If there were only more time, but time ran out when they discovered the Soviets were preparing to bring an intact Forerunner spaceship forward to the present. If they succeeded, they’d end the race to save the Earth from the mysterious global warming threat condemning the majority of the human race to death. Only a remnant of Soviets would survive, using the Forerunner ship to colonize an alien world.
“You’ve got a month to prepare. That’s all. If you aren’t ready and standing in front of the time gate in exactly thirty days, I’m sending Ashe, Murdock, and the support team without you.”
“I’ll be ready in twenty and I’m looking forward to seeing the creation of Swedish Bronze Age stone art first hand.” Murdock figured she’d mentioned that bit of trivia just to annoy Kelgarries. He hated the idea of time travel as mere historical sightseeing. “Now let’s get down to business and outline the plan.”
Twenty days, five hours, two minutes, and an odd number of seconds later, Gordon Ashe, Ross Murdock, and Aiyana Zheutlin were fully outfitted and standing in front of the yet-to-be activated time gate. Behind them were support agents Donald Bryant and Hubert Terry. Bryant and Terry were Ashe’s and Murdock’s backups in case of sudden illness and injury. Normally primary and backup agents never went on a mission together but Kelgarries was out of options. They needed a larger group to convincingly establish a completely new trading post on the Baltic.
Zheutlin was going to pose as Ashe’s wife. It was not unusual for wives and children to travel with Beaker traders, so she wouldn’t attract too much undo attention. She would also be advertised as a priestess of their clan, one who throws runes and communes with the familiars of gods, so that particular reputation would make the local tribesmen hesitant to harass her, that on top of being the wife of a clan leader.
Murdock had watched her appearance change over the past several weeks. Zheutlin had medium-dark skin and nearly jet black hair. Her skin looked creamy smooth, though Ross had never found an opportunity to get quite that close to her. Now she appeared to be a woman from the Bronze Age, one who was accustomed to the hardships of life, of traveling across the wilderness with her people, one totally foreign to twenty-first century healthcare, fashions, and cosmetics.
“It will take almost a week for the sub to get to your destination. We have to be careful. We’re pretty sure there’s a Soviet spy satellite in orbit at your destination time, and while it’s unlikely that the sub will be detected from orbit, it’s not impossible either. She’ll have to stay submerged and control her undersea wake to avoid being spotted.”
“Understood, Major.” Ashe answered for the team. Technically Zheutlin had more authority than the archeologist at base, but Gordon as team leader, had total authority during the mission.
“Good luck. Everything’s riding on this one.”
“Yeah, no pressure,” Murdock thought.
The commanding officer and the rest of the personnel stepped out of the time gate chamber leaving the group of five standing alone in front of the gate.
“Gate activation in ten, nine, eight…”
The control voice proceeded through the countdown to zero and the temporal field flickered into existence. Only Aiyana had never been to the past before. The backup team had been on two orientation trips of ten days each, and this would mark Murdock’s second trip through time. Ashe was about to achieve the Operation’s record of a unprecidented seven time jumps. Most agents retired after five or six, but only Ashe had the experience to lead this team and if they had a prayer of actually succeeding, Ashe and Zheutlin were it.
The temporal transit field crackled to life in front of the five time travelers. Ross had been through the field twice, once to the past and once to return to the present, and approaching the active gateway again had lost none of its thrill. He quickly glanced in Aiyana’s direction and saw wonder in her eyes. She knew more about the time period they were about to enter than anyone else on the team. What was it like for a historian to encounter living history?
“Let’s go.” Ashe stepped through and the other four followed.
Of course, this part was a bit of a let down since, even through they were now 4,000 years in the past, it was still an American outpost. The team would have to endure a relatively lengthy and uneventful trip in the Thetis before they could get to work.
But that was the problem. No one had ever attempted infiltrating a Soviet base in the past. Would the five of them be enough to complete their mission?
Their orders were to do a recon to determine the scope of the Soviet base in the past. If they could reasonably infiltrate and sabotage the Red’s efforts, they were to do so, but if not they’d radio the Thetis, which would remain in the area the projected full thirty days of the mission, coming up to periscope depth once a day before dawn to make contact by radio.
If the temporal team found they could not complete the mission, it might be up to the nuclear powered Thetis to do so with 21st century modern weaponry. Kelgarries said this was the option of last resort, but better to risk changing history by letting the Thetis destroy the Soviet time base than let the Reds get their hands on a Forerunner spaceship.
“Nguyen.” Murdock saw the Marine Lieutenant in the mess hall. Normally, temporal agents tried not to mix with the sub’s officers and crew when about to embark on a mission, but Ross had a specific agenda.
“Murdock. Thought you’d be with your team.”
“I didn’t stop by for the cuisine. I’d like a word with you.”
Privacy is something not easily found on a submarine but breakfast had ended almost half an hour ago and the crew had cleared out. Murdock had heard Nguyen stopped by the mess for a cup of coffee at about this time and he hoped the Marine was a creature of habit.
The time trader stepped close to Nguyen and spoke with a low voice. “I know it was you.”
“What’s that mean, Murdock.”
“I know you’re Kelgarries stooge. I know you were listening at our cabin door when Ashe and I were talking last trip. You ratted us out to the Major.”
“I’m responsible for security on this boat, Murdock. I reported a breach to the Operation’s military commander. That’s my duty.”
In a way, Murdock was relieved. Better for Nguyen to be a tight-assed Marine than a Red spy. Of course, he could be both.
“Just don’t be listening outside my door, Nguyen. I get that you have to report what you know, but sneaking around the sub listening in to private conversations isn’t part of that.”
“I don’t have to explain myself to you, Murdock.”
“I’ve said that I had to say to you. Keep it in mind.”
Murdock brushed past the Marine and back out into the passageway. He’d keep his revelation and his conversation to himself for the time being. He still wasn’t sure about Nguyen. Maybe he was just doing his duty, or maybe it was a cover for a double agent.
Ross walked back to the cabins reserved for their team still wondering how Soviet soldiers found them at their extraction point during the last trip.
Assa, Rossa, Ai, Bor, and Hunn stood on the isolated Scandinavian beach shortly before dawn. Captain Lewis had to risk sending the agents ashore on a motorized raft since the dugout Ashe and Murdock used last trip was much too small for the party and their gear. Once on land, they had to use makeshift sleds that Rossa, Bor, and Hunn pulled to carry their supplies, at least until they could barter for some pack animals.
The team had memorized detailed maps of the area during their training and aboard the sub, so they knew how far they had to travel before they reached the site where they planned to open their new trading post.
“It may be some time before we encounter anyone. This area is even more sparsely populated than around your outpost in Britain, plus they are far more primitive, still using stone implements.” Aiyana or “Ai” was reviewing information everyone else knew. She was the most knowledgeable but least experienced team member and was surprised to find herself talking nervously.
“Right, Ai. Beaker traders are not well-known here, so we’ll have to be cautious. It will take several days to reach our destination.”
“Near the river we discussed earlier, Assa. Close to where it empties into the sea from the mountain lake. A natural crossroads where traders can barter for goods as well as information.”
They progressed for some hours up what might have been a game trail. It was far too early for Vikings or anything like them, but those fierce warriors and raiders had ancestors, both in the literal and figurative sense.
“We have company, Bor declared.” Bryant had been a Ranger in the Army before being assigned to Operation Retrograde. His speciality was tracking enemy forces. It was small wonder he was the first to hear the people approaching from the opposite direction.
“Most likely Axmen. They were the Stone Age forerunners of the later Viking warriors.”
“Makes sense, Ai,” mused Assa. “How do you think they’ll respond to us?”
“Not sure, Assa. I hear about ten men approaching, plus women and children?”
“Then you don’t think they could be Soviets in the guise of locals, Bor.”
“I don’t know, Ashe…uh, Assa,” stuttered Hunn. On his second time travel mission, he felt almost as inexperienced as Ai. “The Soviets might have recruited women and children for the mission just to be convincing.”
“Not likely, Hunn.”
“But not impossible, Assa.”
“The point is moot. Here they come over the rise, maybe a hundred meters ahead,” observed Rossa.
“I don’t think they spotted us yet, Assa,” observed Bor. “We could leave the trail, avoid them, then make contact later.”
“No, we need this lead, Bor. Let’s stay the course.”
The Axmen party saw the traders and stopped. Four men in the lead drew axes, thick wooden handles and stone head. They looked frightened and confused and spoke so rapidly between them that Assa could only catch a few words.
But one of the words Assa recognized was “ghosts”. The apparent leader of the Axmen motioned the rest of the group back, then the quartet all raised their weapons and yelling a war cry, charged the five time traders.
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 this series is Captured.