The quintet descended slowly into the small valley containing the second alien spacecraft. There was more vegetation here than in the previous depression and it partially obscured the vessel.
“Only two stories tall. Maybe a scout craft. Similar construction to the two others but there seems to be some coloring and maybe ornamental differences.”
“Hard to say, Gordon. I don’t know if the shapes and colors on the hull are functional or not. After all, we put markings on the outside of our aircraft and spaceships to indicate the type of vessel and its nationality.”
“Are you saying there are different alien nations or even extraterrestrials from different planets visiting Earth?”
“I have no idea, Travis.”
Byrd and Holden went scouting ahead. They circled the parameter of the craft and Holden came back at a run.
“Bodies, Ashe. We think alien bodies. Three of them.”
They found Byrd standing over one of them when they arrived. He, she, or it was still holding some sort of device in the left hand.
“The bodies are in the same shape as the others. Mummified. Clothing’s held up pretty well. Must be pretty tough to withstand a century out in the open.
They all felt the tremor and heard a sound like distant thunder.
“I think our volcano is acting up a bit.”
“If it’s close to erupting, we’ll have to push our timetable way up, Gordon.”
“Ross, do you think we’d be able to build a large enough gate for this ship in time?”
“Superficially, it seems in much better shape than the other one.”
“Excuse me, but have any of you noticed this?”
“What is it, Byrd?” Ashe walked over to him.
“Look at the positioning of these bodies. It’s as if the one furthest from the spaceship, the one holding the object, was pursuing these other two. See here on their backs? Looks like burn marks. Put a hole right through their suits and through them. You can see the skeletal structure inside this pair.”
“You’re saying this one was chasing the other two.”
“Could be, Fox. And there’s something else. The clothes on that one over there are different from what these two are wearing.”
Murdock bent down over the one holding what…a weapon? “Yeah, the coloring of this suit matches the ones we found in the other craft and the one I wore back in the Ice Age.” Ross then walked over to Byrd and crouched down next to the body he was standing over.
“This looks and feels like the same material, but the color is more of an orange-brown rather than blue-grey.”
“That could mean anything, Murdock. Maybe the color indicates rank or function, kind of like blue shirts on Star Trek meant science while red shirts meant engineering and cannon fodder.”
Fox chuckled at Byrd’s use of the old meme.
“Maybe.” Ross stood back up. “Or it could mean two different sides. As far as I can tell, given the level of decay, these are all of the same race, the race I met in Ice Age Sweden.”
“We’re debating in a vacuum everyone,” Ashe added. We need to get inside that craft.”
“Good luck, Gordon. The hatch is closed and even if it were open, there’s no ramp.”
In response to Murdock, Ashe walked to the ship and started examining the four landing struts one by one. At the third one, he stopped. “Found it.”
He reached inside his cloak. Byrd and Murdock walked over to him while Holden kept watch and Fox looked more closely at one of the bodies.
“Locking mechanism. This should be the key.” Ashe inserted the piece of Forerunner technology into the “lock” on the strut. It fit but then nothing happened.
“So much for that idea, Gordon.”
“No wait, Ross.” Ashe manipulated what looked like a virtual dial and some buttons on the device trying different combinations. When that didn’t yield results, he pulled a more terrestrial but still mysterious device from the pouch at his belt.
“You’ve got more stuff on you than Batman’s utility belt, Gordon.”
“Hush, Ross.” Ashe applied the second device on top of the first and softly pressed the power button.
Nearly half a minute later, the “lock” on the landing strut lit, sounds of a system powering up and then mechanical noises occurred. Holden and Fox turned to see the hatch opening up and a ramp being extended.
Ashe, Murdock, and Byrd ran out from beneath the ship to see for themselves.
“What the heck was that, Gordon.”
“Lock pick, Ross.”
Remember the cache we encountered in Bronze Age Britain?”
“Yeah. You had a key. Worked the first time.”
“It’s just a theory, but we think those sorts of caches all use the same lock, which means the same key would open any one of them.”
“So why not make their spaceships the same way? I’d think the caches would need greater security since we natives could access them more easily.”
“Not sure, Ross.”
“I was at the briefing where the cache was discussed,” Byrd offered. “The cache was consistent with the ship Murdock encountered at the Soviet base, with the Forerunners wearing the blue outfits.”
“So Murdock, we have every indication this is a ship of the aliens dressed in orange. What if a standard blue key’s default settings won’t work on an orange ship, kind of like how our security would be designed to keep out Soviets but not us.”
“Sounds like you think the blue and orange aliens are in some sort of competition…or war. And why do you call them ‘blue’ and ‘orange’?”
“We have to tell them apart somehow, Murdock.”
“It’s as good a method of discrimination as any, Ross. We’ll call them ‘blue’ and ‘orange’ to tell them apart until we get a better way of naming them.” Ashe found himself hoping one of the things they’d learn from this ship was the Forerunner language.
“Excuse me, but this ramp is just begging to be climbed.”
The trio looked to see Fox and Holden standing at the foot of the ramp the ship had automatically extended.
“Coming, Travis,” Ashe called and walked with his two companions to join the two others.
This time Ashe started to lead the way when Byrd stopped him.
“Excuse me Sir, but since we’ve definitely established that this ship is live, maybe Holden and I should take point.”
“I think he’s right, Gordon. We don’t know what we’ll find in there, even after a hundred years.”
“Okay Ross, Byrd. Go ahead.”
Byrd and Holden, Travis was wondering if they even had first names, cautiously walked up the ramp. As they approached the threshold of the open hatch, they could see lights come on inside. Two or three minutes passed, then Byrd returned to the edge of the hatch.
“Seems immediately safe, Ashe. Power’s on but we can’t see anything that looks like a threat. Oh, we did find something of interest.”
Ashe, Murdock, and Fox walked up the ramp. This time, it was obvious they were in some sort of airlock. Passing through there, they seemed to be in a large room covered with control surfaces, a chair every so many feet between them.
“Control room by the looks of it. Chairs, not tubs, but filled with the same red gel I encountered. It must be used to absorb the shock of launch and high speed course changes as well as having healing abilities.”
That’s when Ross noticed one of the chairs was occupied. It wasn’t apparent at first because the person was sunken back into the gel. It was a Forerunner, what they’d dubbed an “orange”. He was dead but looked much better preserved than the aliens outside.
“Best guess is that he had been wounded by the blue and hoped the gel would heal him and let him takeoff. Guess his injuries were too severe.”
“Guess so, Byrd.” Ashe and Murdock were taking a closer look at the orange. “Don’t touch him, Murdock.” Ashe used “him” as a matter of convention since no manner of determining gender among Forerunners had been established, assuming the concept of gender was meaningful to them.
“We can take him back to the present ahead of the ship. I assume this is the Forerunner craft we want.”
“Without question, Ross.”
“No elevator, but the alcove off to the left has a ladder.” Byrd waved his hand indicating the open doorway.
“Door on the left leads to what might be an engineering room. The rest of this level seems to be sealed off. Probably some sort of mechanisms you shouldn’t have easy access to.”
Byrd led the way up the ladder. After Ashe, Murdock, and Fox joined him, he gave a brief tour of what appeared to be crew quarters and a small mess.
“Looks like there are accomodations for three to five crew. Maybe a scout ship or a small fighter.”
“Are we thinking the smaller ship chased the bigger one into our atmosphere and forced it to crash, then tried to finish off the survivors?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Murdock.” Byrd shrugged his shoulders.
Ashe admired Murdock’s imagination, but there just wasn’t enough information available yet. Or was there?
“Ross, your telepathic link with the blue Forerunner. Is any of that helping you understand this situation?”
“Not consciously, Gordon.” Maybe now that I’ve seen all this, something will break loose up in my head.”
As amazing as this situation was, Fox still had a tough time believing Murdock had the memories of a Soviet Army officer and an alien uploaded into his brain. On the other hand, he was standing on the upper deck of an alien spaceship over 10,000 years before he was born, and he was with four other men, all dressed like his distant ancestors.
“Photograph and video everything. We’ll want to give the research team back in the Arctic plenty to analyze. Once you’ve got that taken care of, we’d better think about if we want to spend the night here or not.”
By the time they were finished, it was mid-afternoon.
“I know we planned to spend several days here, but with that volcano acting up, I think we’d better get back and accelerate our schedule.”
“Just a thought Gordon, we might want to send in a few volcanologists back here to give us a better estimate about the chances of that thing blowing its top.”
“Good idea, Ross. We can have them flown out by jet helicopter.”
The five ran double-time across the valley floor after Ashe made sure the ship was locked up tight. He had the combination now, so getting back in would be a snap.
They topped the ridge and decided to go back into the first valley rather than remain exposed by circling around on the high ground.
They were making good time across the plain when Travis saw a large herd of bison to the right of them. “That’s what’s making the earth quake this time, guys. Amazing.”
Byrd and Holden each went around opposite ends of a rock outcropping. Then a loud cry and someone bolted out right toward Ashe, Murdock, and Fox. He tried to turn and run, but Byrd and Holden blocked the way.
He said words, some sort of speech. Even Ashe had no idea what he was saying.
“Can’t be more than fourteen years old. Just a kid.”
“Might even be younger, Fox. People here didn’t live as long as we do. Life was hard. He could be eleven or twelve, a Folsom out on his first hunt.”
The accidental intruder let go of his spear, dropped to his knees and closed his eyes tight, mumbling rapidly.
“What the devil?”
“Praying to his gods, maybe. Our odd speech. We may also be giving off other signs that make us strange to him.”
“Sir, maybe he thinks we’re the gods.”
“Just don’t show him your firearm or anything else from our era, Byrd. The poor kid’s scared enough as it is.”
“What do we do with him, Sir? If he’s separated from his group, leaving him out here will probably get him killed.”
“He’s one person. We can’t take him with us and we don’t have the time to help him find his people.”
Byrd was tough but even he thought it was cold blooded to leave a kid alone in this wilderness.
“Just step away from him slowly everyone.”
The group obeyed Ashe and started walking backward away from the Folsom youth. The kid looked up. He continued talking with his arms out, as if imploring them.
“Keep going. Byrd, Holden, turn and take point. Murdock, take the rear. We’re leaving.”
As they moved away, they heard the youth yelling at them. Murdock chanced a look back and saw the kid raise his spear as if he were going to throw it at them. He lowered it, glanced in different directions, and then ran off toward where they’d last seen the Bison herd.
“Maybe he figures the hunters will follow the herd. Good guess. Hope he makes it.”
“We’ll never know, Ross. From our point of view, he died a hundred centuries ago.”
The time gate was activated for the seventh time for a five minute period, but this time, they got a signal from the other side. The party was returning early.
“Prepare for retrieval,” the Control Voice announced. The gate crew moved back and the temporal field erupted as the five time travelers returned from the past.
Aiyana bit her lower lip as they came through and was relieved when they all looked well and uninjured. The field was deactivated and she stepped forward with several other crew members. “What happened?”
“We’ll put together a briefing, but we’ll have to act fast. First, I’ve got to radio base.”
Linden Williams and Koert Verhoeven were the two best volcanologists they could get on such short notice, but they were top notch in their field so Ashe trusted their judgment. Their report wasn’t encouraging.
They had no idea what the volcano’s eruptive history was, and although they had installed monitoring equipment, they didn’t have the time necessary to make long term observations. The best they could estimate was one to three months.
“That said, it could blow tomorrow or not for another year. You’re asking a lot, Ashe.” Verhoeven spoke in heavily accented English.
“Sorry, but that’s the best we can do,” Williams added. We might be able to use the gate to go back and observe the volcano at earlier stages, get a better estimate, but it would take time, if you’ll pardon the pun.”
“Unfortunately, time isn’t something we have. The nature of gate mechanics necessitates synchronized chronology. Now that we’ve jumped, for every day that passes here, a day passes at our target point in the past.
“Then our work here is done.” Verhoeven stood up and turned to Williams. “Ready?”
“Actually, I’d like to stay and see how the mission works out. This is terrifically exciting stuff.”
Verhoeven wasn’t amused. “We are expected to present a paper we co-authored at the MGPV Annual Conference in Houston in four days, Linden. Our helicopter is waiting.”
Williams reluctantly stood. “Wish I could stay. Looks like fun.”
“Come on, Linden.” Verhoeven left the cavern with Williams rushing to catch up.
“Fun couple,” Travis wryly observed.
“I’d hate working with Verhoeven. He has the personality of a shark.”
“Yeah, Ai. I wonder if Williams ever regrets marrying him.” Ross raised his eyebrow as he commented.
“Oh God, they’re co-workers and they’re married?”
Ashe chuckled. “It’s happens all too often, Aiyana. We’d better get to work ourselves.”
Other security teams were assigned to Byrd and Holden. They had to make absolutely sure there weren’t more hunting parties or other human groups in the area between the gate and the spaceships. But even if there were, they’d have no choice but to start sending back parts, equipment, and personnel to build the big gate around the “orange” spacecraft.
If that one Folsom pre-teen thought Ashe’s party of five was intimidating, he’d have been frightened out of his mind to see large trucks and helicopters appearing out of nowhere and heading west.
“Can’t be helped, John.”
Ashe was addressing Operation Retrograde’s military commander Major John Kelgarries at the entrance to the cave at what was now called Folsom Base.
“I thought you were the one so keen on not fucking up the timeline, Gordon. You’ve authorized sending enough equipment and manpower back through time to build a small town.”
“If we don’t get that ship back through to the present in a matter of weeks, it could be destroyed forever. This is our best shot at the gold ring.”
Kelgarries regarded the shorter man sternly, but he also knew Ashe was rarely wrong.
“Well it’s done, but I’m staying to oversee the operation. Besides, you’ll need help establishing a cover for the ship’s time transfer point in the present.”
“How’s that going, John?”
“We’ll make an announcement that an Air Force bomber with two tactical nukes crashed on that site. It’ll give us the excuse to cordon it off with several hundred soldiers. We can also bring in the big trucks to haul the ship out pretending it’s our downed bird and her two nuclear eggs. Trust me, people will stay clear.”
“Sounds like a good plan. Now all we have to do is hold up our end.”
The temporal engineers on site decided they needed to build the gate on the other end in the arroyo’s deep depression, what would eventually erode into a system of caves, back in the Folsom era. The gate was being used so often that the temporal field needed a structure on the other end to create better stability.
When they activated the field to link the two gates for the first time, for a few seconds, they got some odd feedback.
“What do you make of it, Aramazd?”
“Beats me, Major. I’ve never seen the equipment act like this before?”
“Could it be because this is the initial linking of both gates?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve supervised half a dozen initial linkings, and nothing like this has ever happened before. There. The readings have settled down. Next shipment to go through is ready. When I get the time, I’ll have my team do a diagnostic. Just too much activity to get that done now.”
“Fine. Keep me informed of any changes.”
The large gate was finally finished. It looked like a huge ornate arch stately gracing the Forerunner ship.
Samples from the blue ship had long since been transmitted to the present along with the bodies of both the blue and orange dead. The body that had been inside the orange ship was removed along with the gel container. Ashe hoped to learn more about the gel and the person it preserved once this part of the mission was over.
Lynn Huỳnh, one of the junior technicians getting the ship’s control systems locked down and ready to time travel was late in her work. She was responsible for what looked like the secondary propulsion system, but she’d woken up with a migrane, probably the damned smoke from that volcano next door, and she was having a hard time concentrating.
Her walkie talkie buzzed and she cursed the fact she was 10,000 years too early for decent cell service.
She grabbed it and pressed the send button. “Huỳnh here, over.”
“You about ready, Lynn. The rest of the team’s in the truck and we need to get back to the gate. Over.”
Kiefer Elliott wasn’t bad to work for, but he tended to get testy when under stress.
“Just about Kiefer. I need ten more minutes, over.”
“That’s too long. I’ve got Byrd getting ready to stab me with that old fashioned spear he carries around if we aren’t out of here in five. Over.”
“Look. I’ll get a ride out with the security team. Just take off. Over.”
“Okay, as long as you’ll be alright. See you back at base, over.”
“Thanks. See you. Over and out.”
She replaced the radio on her belt and then turned it off. Now if everyone would just leave her alone, she’d be able to get her work finished.
Ashe and Murdock were in the main control room, which is what they’d come to think of it, when they heard footsteps coming up the ramp. Travis had reluctantly agreed to stay in the present, but would have the honor of being at the big time gate when their ship came through.
“Probably Holden wanting an update.” Ashe got out of the seat he was in, which was amazingly comfortable, but instead of Holden entering through the hatch, another familiar figure appeared.
“Mind if I take a look?”
“Aiyana, what are you doing here?”
“I’ve never been on an alien ship before. Kelgarries promised that no one but the official investigative team would get near the ship once its in the present, so I hitched a ride through the gate with a security detail and here I am.”
“We’re trying to get out of here, Ai. Turn around and go back to base with them.”
“Too late. They’ve already picked up the rest of the ground crew and left. I said I’d catch a ride with you.”
Ross chuckled to himself, thinking it was like they were already married.
“Come on Gordon. Don’t be so stuffy. Show me around.”
A large tremor knocked the two of them off their feet. In the next room, Lynn cried out as she dropped her small spanner just as she was finishing the last lock on the controls.
They heard and felt an ominous rumbling, then what sounded like a small explosion.
“Oh damn. It’s gonna blow.” Murdock found himself looking up and to the right as if he could see the volcano through the ship’s hull.
Ashe’s radio came to life.
“Holden to Ashe. Come in Ashe. Over.”
“I’m here. What’s going on out there? Over.”
We were on our way in the last transport to pick you up but we can’t get to you now. That thing looks like it’s going to blow any second. No time to come for you and get all the way back to the gate, over.”
“Just go, Holden. Get your people out safe. We’ll risk doing the time jump in the ship, over.”
Aiyana was back on her hands and knees and looked at Gordon as if he had just gone insane.
“With the ship?”
Ashe was still on the radio. “We’ll be fine. The gate was configured for an automatic jump. I’ll set the controls and get back inside before the field initiates, over.”
“Got it, Ashe. You be careful. We’ve turned tail and are heading home. Good luck, over.”
“Good luck to you, Holden. Over and out.”
Huỳnh had just come out of the auxillary control room or whatever it was. She’d collected her tools and had to grab the doorway as another tremor hit.
“All of you, get into those seats. There’s one for each of us. I’ll set the gate controls and get back up.”
Ashe was out the door before Murdock could stop him. He made sure Aiyanna and Lynn were secured in the gel seats and then took his own.
Ashe wasn’t a gate technician but all active agents were trained in how to operate the controls in an emergency. He paused at the small control panel next to the gate to look up. The sky was almost black. It was hot. The ground kept shaking. It was like watching the end of the world.
“Well, this won’t be the end of our world.” He turned back to the panel and set the gate to initiate the field in ninety seconds. Then he ran back up the ramp as fast as he could screaming at Murdock. “Close the hatch!”
They’d managed to figure out some of the simpler control buttons and indicators including how to close the hatch from the inside. Murdock’s finger was on panel as Ashe ran in. The ramp was being pulled back into the ship when Gordon sank into red gel. In spite of his panic, he found the gel soothing, relaxing, as if it were acting on his emotions as well as his body.
The hatch closed and they could hear the mechanical locking sounds.
Another tremor, the largest yet. If only the gate could hold up to the stress for just a few more seconds.
Then the four of them felt that odd, disembodied sensation telling them the temporal transfer field had activated. It lasted for just a few seconds but during that time, they had the feeling they were nowhere at all.
When it ended, everything was strangely silent. “No volcano,” Ross mused. “We made it.” He pressed the panel to open the hatch but the lit button started blinking rapidly and the hatch remained inert.
Then the tremors returned, except they weren’t violent and uneven. Control lights turned on at all of the panels in the room.
“I thought the controls were locked down to prevent accidental activation during the time jump.”
“They were, Dr. Ashe. I don’t understand it.” Huỳnh felt the pit of her stomach drop to the center of the Earth. She realized she did know why. The volcano’s tremor as she closed the last lock. Something must have slipped.
“It’s the engines,” Murdock said in a tight voice. “The volcanic tremors and then the jump through the gate must have activated the launch sequence. We’re taking off.”
This is an extension of my Time Traders homage, a small collection of chapters honoring Andre Norton’s (Alice Mary Norton’s) 1958 scifi cold war thriller The Time Traders. In 1959, she published a sequel called Galactic Derelict which introduced the character Travis Fox.
The chapters of my previous “book” are here:
- The Recruit
- The Artifact
- The Traders
- The Curse of Lurgha
- The Cache
- Epilogue: The Time Traders
Here are the chapters so far for my “Galactic Derelict” homage:
The next chapter is Space Flight.