The Tenth Story in the Time Travel Adventures of Ross Murdock
“Welcome to the Ice Age. What shall I call you?”
Murdock was startled out of his shock and awe by the voice coming from around the enclosure he had just exited. He had assumed the room was inside a main wall of the cavern, but as he turned around, he saw it was a stand alone structure.
“Come, come. I know you are not actually a Beakerman named ‘Rossa’.”
Ross didn’t recognize the man in the Soviet Major’s uniform but the voice was familiar.
“That’s right. I was the one speaking to your group on that beach in Britain, the one where you were hiding before your Marines came to retrieve you. I lost two good men in that little skirmish but then, those are the fortunes of war.”
It took Murdock a minute to realize the Major was speaking in English, but he had been instantly aware that the Soviet officer was accompanied by four armed soldiers. Even if they weren’t present, where could he escape to? He had no idea where the time gate was. The one being built for the Forerunner spaceship wasn’t operational, but they must have at least one other unit.
“Rossa will do just fine, Major.” It was ridiculous to maintain the charade, but there was no need to give the Soviets a name they could check.
“Very well, Rossa. Major Vasnev Danya Romanovich.”
“I’m surprised the Kremlin gave you such an important assignment after your fiasco in Bronze Age Britain.”
“You Americans can be so charming. Shall we take a stroll as we talk?”
Ross walked at Romanovich’s side while the guards took up position in the rear.
“I thought you’d like a closer look at the spaceship, Rossa. After all, it will be leaving in a few short days while you remain a permanent resident here.”
“And you said I was charming, Romanovich.”
The Russian chuckled. “You are correct about there being consequences for failing to capture your team the first time, but my military record up to that moment had been exemplary and I do have friends in high places, so I managed to be assigned to oversee the final phase of our project in the Ice Age.”
“Do you have any idea who they were, the Forerunners I mean? What were they doing here? Did they really maintain manned outposts on Earth for thousands of years?”
“All of that is classified, Rossa. In your movies, the villain, which you consider me to be, often says ‘why not tell you since you won’t live long enough to make use of the information.’ Real life doesn’t work out that way.”
“Why bring me back over 11,000 years into the past, Major? Why didn’t your comrades in the Bronze Age put a bullet in my head?”
“A number of reasons. You might still have value as a hostage. Personally, I wanted to test how those artifacts we scavenged from one of the ship’s lifeboats worked on you.”
“The room with the bathtub?”
“We’ve been calling it a cradle, but yes. Our scientists theorized that the gel had healing properties. It seemed to work well in the animal tests, but I’m the one who suggested we try it out on you. Your clothing was a horrible mess, so we have lent you apparel found about that same lifeboat.”
“You mean this…” Murdock stopped suddenly, looked down and placed his hand on his chest.
“The lifeboat was damaged in our extraction process, but we used part of its hull to build the shelter you woke up inside and placed the cradle within it. There were no seats in the lifeboat in the conventional sense, so the Forerunners, who by the way must be humanoid given how their clothing fits you, may have used the cradles during spaceflight.”
Murdock found it interesting that the Major was volunteering information he probably would have withheld if he had been questioned directly.
“So you’ve already begun experimenting on the ship’s technology.”
“As is apparent, Rossa.”
By now, they were at the foot of the larger spherical vessel. Over forty feet in height, and that didn’t include the four landing struts that supported it. Murdock looked up and saw some sort of covering in the ceiling directly above the ship.
“Is that yours?”
“Yes. We needed to keep out the elements while working down here. We believe the spacecraft itself may have generated some sort of sheltering field which has since failed.”
“You found a ship but no crew?”
“Our good fortune.”
They were walking around the ship in a circle. Murdock saw what was probably the main hatch. The Soviets had rigged up a ramp to gain access. What looked like scientists and technicians were steadily going in and out of the alien spaceship.
“I would give you a tour of the interior but I’ve been told that the utmost caution must be taken around the ship’s control surfaces. No telling what might happen if you pushed the wrong button, or even the right one.”
Something in the Major’s voice told Ross that someone already did push the wrong button, beyond damaging the priceless lifeboat attempting to remove it from the larger ship.
“Since we’re having this pleasant conversation Major Romanovich, can you tell me what happened to my two companions?”
“You mean the ones who intruded on our Bronze Age compound, as you say it, armed to the teeth? They were soldiers, unlike you, Rossa. That is how they died. You are a spy and you will suffer a different fate.”
Murdock wasn’t surprised, but he had hoped that Bryant and Terry would have been held captive. Of course, that wouldn’t be a lot better since it seemed the plan was to strand Ross in Earth’s last Ice Age, but while you’re alive, there’s always hope.
Murdock found himself wondering just how much hope he had left.
“I believe this concludes our short tour of the facility, Rossa. It is time for you to take up your accommodations for the rest of your stay, or that portion of your sojourn where the rest of us will be present.”
Before waiting for Ross to answer, the Major commanded the soldiers in Russian. “Take the prisoner to his cell.” The officer then stood back as the four guards, two in front and two behind him, marched him toward a door at the far end of the expansive chamber.
“Wait, Major. Back in Britain. How did you find out where we’d be?”
“A merchant who could be bribed. He had a boy follow you. Noticed the direction you were headed. From there, a small flying drone with infrared tracked you. Hardly worth mentioning.”
Romanovich repeated his command and the soldiers continued to herd Murdock out of the cavern.
“Another day, another jail cell,” Ross mused to himself. At least this one had modern plumbing, a fairly comfortable cot, and a door slot for meals.
They fed Murdock what was probably standard Soviet military rations. He’d heard someplace that the Soviets sometimes included vodka, but if so, his share was noticeably absent. Three hots and a cot was better than what he was offered in his Bronze Age prison.
Four days passed uneventfully, at least from Murdock’s point of view. Like his previous experiences in jail, he was counting down the days, but this time not until release, but rather until abandonment in the frozen past and death.
Murdock spent a lot of time sleeping. There was little else to do besides stare at the walls, look forward to meals, and generally wallow in boredom.
He was half asleep when he felt the first tremor. Ross was sitting up and wide awake for the second which he now realized was accompanied by the sound of a distant explosion. An alarm sounded. His lights flickered for a moment. Men were running frantically in the corridor outside his cell yelling in Russian, a language Ross didn’t understand.
Minutes passed and his cell opened. It was Romanovich. “Come with me, Rossa or whoever you are. You just got another chance at life assuming we can get out of here.”
For an instant, shock immobilized Murdock, and then he was up and running, following the Major down the hall. “What the hell is going on Romanovich?”
“We’re under attack.” The Major took the corridor to the right with Murdock on his heels. There was yelling behind them. Screaming. The sounds of men dying. There were other voices not speaking Russian or any language Ross had ever heard before.
They passed a bank of elevators and took the stairs. Murdock had forgotten that his cell was several floors above where he’d seen the spaceship and the time gate.
Bottom floor. Romanovich opened a door into what looked like the same auxiliary control room Murdock found himself in at the Bronze Age time gate. The Major hit what Ross recognized as the gate’s panic button. Normally, there was a lengthy procedure that accompanied the activation of a time gate in preparation for a jump, but in an emergency, the panic button let gate engineers send a massive power surge into the mechanism. In theory, if the gate didn’t explode, it would become operational in less than a minute.
“Why take me with you, Major? What about your men?”
“No time for any of that, Rossa. It’s too late to save anyone but you.”
They were out of the control room now and on the gate’s main floor. This was the first time Murdock had been this close to a Soviet time machine and he was surprised to find that the gate’s construction was very different from the American version. Yet he recognized something. The Americans had gotten the secret of time travel from a Russian defector, but it wasn’t a gate that looked like this. Then Ross realized why the Soviet gate looked so familiar.
“Oh my God,” Murdock whispered.
“Thirty seconds until the field forms, Rossa. Then back to the Bronze Age.”
The main door burst open and a…man came through. He was dressed identically to Ross, the same blue-grey form-fitting suit. Humanoid but not human. A Forerunner.
Romanovich drew his sidearm but before he could take aim, the end of a small object in the alien’s left hand lit a bright yellow and then both men screamed in pain.
Murdock’s brain was on fire, as if every neuron in his cranium were electrified. He was barely aware that Romanovich was in the same condition. The Major passed out, but Ross’s living agony began to subside. The creature was bending over him.
Murdock was on his back looking up into the Forerunner’s face. Eyes more or less human, but a strange color. Nose in the same place but flattened, like that of a boxer who’d taken one too many punches in the face. Mouth more like a slit with just the hint of lips. No head or facial hair whatsoever. Skin color a little like a peach but the texture was more like an orange peel.
Feelings, images, sounds, words in a strange language that Murdock could understand anyway. It was all coming too quickly, like a video being fast forwarded at an insane rate. Ross couldn’t make sense of it but he was filled with an ominous terror. Was this telepathy? If these were the alien’s thoughts, was he reading what was in the time traveler’s mind a well?
A gunshot broke the link.
Murdock found he was able to move again. He sat up to see the Major pointing a gun at the now prone and motionless Forerunner.
“Our friend was paying so much attention to you, he relaxed too much of his hold on me.”
Ross wondered if the alien was a “he” or a “she” or even something else. The blood looked the same.
“Come on, Rossa.” Romanovich holstered his weapon, grabbed Ross by the arm, pulled him to his feet, and all but pushed him through the time gate field. At first Ross thought he was in the same room, but then he realized this was the Soviet time gate chamber in the Bronze Age. Romanovich came through a second later.
There were several technicians in the main control room on this side of the gate. “Turn off the damn field, you idiots. No one else must come through.”
“Just do it. I’ll explain later.”
Murdock saw them work a number of controls and watched the field collapse.
“Come with me, Rossa.” The Major drew his sidearm again and pointed it at the “trader”. “Through those doors.”
Ross did as he was ordered. He supposed he was going to be put in another cell, but instead, the Major led him into an elevator and up to the top floor, the surface of their subterranean base. Murdock turned to ask Romanovich what the hell he was doing, but he didn’t have a chance.
A tremor. An explosion from the floors below.
“Damn. The Forerunners. They came through the gate. I should have realized they’d be able to.”
Distracted, the Major lowered his weapon and his arm drifted to one side. Murdock saw his opportunity and his training took over. He broke the Major’s wrist and then hit him twice, enough to drop the Soviet to the ground, dazed if not unconscious.
Murdock quickly picked up Romanovich’s pistol and ran. Most of the Soviet troops were underground and more were headed for the long hut where the secret entrance to their base was located. Ross was all but ignored. There must be vehicles, jeeps, snowmobiles, something, but he didn’t see an obvious motor pool and he didn’t have time to conduct a search. The Forerunners were coming through into the Bronze Age and he didn’t want to be around to see them.
Cold. His alien suit actually kept him warmer than he imagined, but his hands and face were still exposed. The sun was going down and the temperature was dropping rapidly. Soon even the suit wouldn’t protect him. He was shivering. He could hardly feel the gun in his hand. Then he noticed it was gone. What were the ramifications of losing a Soviet issued handgun in the Bronze Age? Ross laughed hysterically. Who cares about a gun when aliens were overrunning an entire base? What would future archeologists make of those ruins?
Murdock realized he had stopped running, stopped walking, that he was lying on the ground. There was a mist. Trees looked like the twisted skeletons of men. He was drowsy. If he fell asleep out here, he’d freeze to death.
Images. Speech in an unknown language that Ross could understand anyway. He forced himself to open his eyes. He propped himself up on one elbow and tried to look around. Nothing moving as far as he could tell. In the Ice Age, the alien was right next to him before he felt his or rather its thoughts.
He could tell they were coming for him. How did they know where he was? His thoughts? No. The suit. They could track the suit. It was his only protection from the cold but it was also a beacon leading the Forerunners to him. He tried to pull it off but whatever openings it had when he first put it on had disappeared. Strange because he could open it in the Soviet cell to relieve himself.
Murdock felt his mind going numb. It wasn’t the cold. The aliens were doing something to him. They were coming for him and he didn’t even have Romanovich’s gun.
He couldn’t give up. He’d gone through so much. He couldn’t let them take him. He had so much to report, the alternate timelines. His people had to know history was changed. Then there was something else as important, maybe more important. It was right at the edge of his thoughts…and of their thoughts.
Ross Murdock hit his fist against a rock as hard as he could. He did it again. Pain. His knuckles were bleeding. Again. Some of the flesh on his fist looked like bloody hamburger. Again.
Pain. His mind was clearer. He used his left hand to open the front of the suit. It was so cold, being nude probably wouldn’t make much difference. He was going to die anyway, but he couldn’t let the aliens capture him.
He was walking again. One foot in front of another. Then another step, another step. He couldn’t feel his legs. They were coming for him. Shadows in the mist just ahead. He could barely see.
And then everything was darkness.
Murdock woke or was he dreaming? He was freezing. So cold. He couldn’t move. Something was restraining him. There were voices, but they sounded so far away. He blacked out.
Taste. Some sort of broth. Someone was lifting his head, putting a spoon in his mouth.
A scraping sound and something was being pulled over uneven ground. He was reclining on something. He was being tossed and bumped around. He was restrained. He felt cold on his face but warmth everywhere else.
“Is he coming around?”
“He’s been fading in and out for days.”
Ross opened his eyes, really opened them for the first time in a long time, or so it seemed. He saw Ashe sitting by his bunk reading a book. They were on the sub.
“Ashe.” Murdock was shocked at how hoarse his voice sounded.
“Ross.” Ashe put his book down on the table by the bunk. “It’s good to see you awake. How do you feel?”
“Tired.” It was hard to talk. “Hungry.”
“That’s a good sign, Ross. I’ll have some soup brought in.”
An hour later, Murdock had managed to get half a bowl of chicken noodle soup in his belly. He could sit up for short periods of time, but he still felt wiped out.
“Get some more rest, Ross. We’ll be at the time gate in a few days.”
Ross woke up in the infirmary at Operation Retrograde. He felt better, still weak, but able to sit up. He even tried to stand but sat heavily back down on his bed.
A few days later, he could take short walks around the ward. There were few patients but he wasn’t the only one. Time travel was dangerous and there were two team members, from different teams, who were recovering, one from a spear wound to the gut, and the other from an exotic form of flu that is now extinct. He was kept in isolation but probably was no longer contagious.
It was another week before Murdock was strong enough to be debriefed. What he had to say to Kelgarries and the top civilian and military heads of the project was no less than revolutionary.
“So the Soviets changed history to their favor somehow.”
“I don’t know if they did so deliberately or it just worked out that way, Major.”
“But the Soviet Union should have gone the way of the Dodo bird in the early 1990s, Ross. You said that’s what the timeline indicators showed.”
“Yeah, but what I didn’t get was how to change things back or even if we should try. We might make things worse and we don’t know any of the specific details of exactly what was changed to modify history.”
“What about the Forerunner telepathic contact? You’ve been holding back about that.”
“That’s because I don’t know what to make of it, Major. I mean the Forerunners are the cause of climate change, all of it. Just like our scientists think we can terraform other planets someday, modify their climate and atmosphere to make them more Earth-like, that’s what the Forerunners are doing to Earth, really have been doing to Earth in subtle ways for thousands of years.”
“You felt all this in the alien’s mind”.
“I think telepathy is a two-way street, at least for them. If they want what’s in your mind, you get what’s in their’s. The alien wasn’t planning on letting me live long enough to use what I’d learned.”
“But why did they leave a spaceship unguarded in the Ice Age and then why did they attack the Soviet base.”
“I think the ship was left there as a backup, in case a visiting primary Forerunner ship malfunctioned. The Soviets somehow managed to activate an emergency beacon and the Forerunners followed it to the source. Then when they discovered the time gate, they followed Romanovich and me back to the Bronze Age and attacked the base there.”
“According to Captain Lewis’s report, the drones he sent over the site reported nothing but a large crater. The place was totally destroyed. They probably overloaded the time gate, which would have vaporized just about everything.”
“That’s why we left in a hurry, Ross.” Ashe had been sitting next to his friend during the debriefing. “We must have found you just after you took off the Forerunner suit. You thought we were the aliens, tried to fight us off but you were too weak.”
Uffla and I got you back to the village just before the cataclysm. Terrified everyone including me. Aiyana and I managed to get you on a sled, bundled you up heavily, and pulled you by donkey back south. We parted company with the Axmen who I’m afraid weren’t exactly sorry to see us go. Made it to the extraction point. We’d notified Captain Lewis ahead of time, so Marines were waiting for us when we got there.”
“What I don’t get Murdock was how you’ve come through this completely unscathed.”
“How’s that, Major. It took over a month for me to recover and I’m still not back in shape yet.”
“No sign of frostbite. You were standing naked in sub-zero temperatures. How did you manage that?”
“Maybe the alien healing gel had a lasting effect, at least enough to help me ward off permanent injury. I don’t know.”
The debriefing went on for another fifteen minutes before Ash put an end to it. Ross was tired again and needed more time to recuperate. It was only Kelgarries, Ash, and Zheutlin in the room when Murdock made his final revelation.
“You’re sure about the Soviet gate.”
“Absolutely, Major. Remember that Ashe taught me how to spot Forerunner technology, the unique pattern of their circuitry. It was integrated into the Soviet’s time gate. I thought the big arch for the spaceship looked familiar, but when I was about to go through the other gate with Romanovich, I saw the truth.”
“Major, the Soviet time gates are alien technology. The Soviets didn’t invent time travel. The Forerunners did.”
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 last contribution to my homage/adaptation of Norton’s novel is Epilogue: The Time Traders.