Travis Fox stood with a security team as he witnessed the wonderful and horrible miracle of the Forerunner spaceship launching from the surface of the Earth.
While Ashe and Murdock were in the past supervising the preparations for the ship’s time jump, Travis reluctantly agreed to remain in the present. He couldn’t stay away from home too long without his wife Cassie, his uncle Wendell, and even his three small children wondering what he was really up to.
The project managed to find an alternate source of water to keep Wendell from having the ranch hands at the Double A drive the herd to the Canyon of the Moon and discovering Folsom Base. Travis had even gone home for a week to show everyone he was fine and to reinforce his cover story that he was helping an old teacher of his with an archaeological dig.
Fox managed to convince his family that he needed to return to the dig, but in fact, for the past two days, he was at this end of the large time gate waiting for the culmination of the mission; bringing an alien spacecraft forward in time 10,000 years.
When the ship materialized in the field, he almost expected Major Kelgarries and his troops to break out champagne but they were all business. There were cheers when the ship appeared and the temporal field was extinguished, but they were short-lived.
The ship rumbled and vibrated. There was a roar. No rockets in the conventional sense, but some form of motive power was slowly lifting the Forerunner scout craft off of the desert floor.
Time gate engineers instantly hit the panic button. The panic button has two functions. The first is to dump a massive surge of raw power into an unenergized gate to get it up and running in less than a minute. The other is to immediately decouple an active gate from its fusion power source and drain any reserve energy.
By some miracle it worked. The ship lifted off, destroying the gate’s superstructure, causing it to shatter like glass and fall to the ground, but there was no explosion. If the gate had still be active when the Forerunner ship fractured it, there would have been a massive detonation. The people of Arizona and the rest of the world would have been given good reason to believe in Kelgarries’ cover story and that one or both of the nukes carried by the downed (and fictional) Air Force bomber had gone off.
“Oh my God,” Travis whispered as he watched the spacecraft continue to climb and accelerate. He was barely aware of the frantic activity all around him, of orders being yelled, of…
“Fox, what are you still doing here? Sergeant! Put this man in a transport and get him out of here.”
Travis realized it was Kelgarries yelling at him. A burly MP grabbed him by his right arm, “Come this way, Sir.”
“Wait! What happened? Are Ashe and Murdock still in that thing?”
“Get lost, Fox. We’ve got work to do.”
Travis Fox was numb as he let the MP escort him to a nearby Humvee. He got in the back, heard the engine roar to life, and felt the vehicle lurch forward.
“Where to, Sir?”
Travis realized that Kelgarries hadn’t told the Sergeant where to take him.
“Uh, Folsom Base. I need to check in there.”
Maybe they’d know more about what was going on. It was a long shot, but he didn’t want to go home, not yet. Ashe and Murdock had been launched into outer space inside an alien ship and there was no telling what was going to happen next.
Gordon Ashe, Ross Murdock, Aiyana Zheutlin, and Lynn Huỳnh had the dubious honor of being the first human beings to be launched into space aboard an alien spaceship, but all things considered, each one of them would rather have been anywhere else.
They were pressed back into their seats, back into the red gel, and while they didn’t feel the vibrations rattling the rest of the ship as it presumably climbed into Earth’s upper atmosphere, they weren’t able to move and were barely able to speak.
“Ross.” Gordon tried to lean forward so he could turn to see what his partner was doing, but he was held firmly in place, either by the G-forces or the gel itself. Maybe it was a safety feature to prevent the crew from being injured during takeoff.
Minutes passed but Ashe couldn’t tell how long it was until the vibrations lessened and then finally ceased. It must mean they were in space. At least they hadn’t crashed.
“Ross.” Ashe found he could move forward and get out of his seat. Too late did he think about weightlessness, but fortunately it didn’t matter because he was able to stand normally on the deck. Had they landed somewhere else on Earth?
Gordon leaned over Murdock’s chair and found his fellow time traveler unconscious.
“Gordon.” Aiyana was getting out of the seat farthest to the right and was moving toward Lynn. Only then did Ashe hear Huỳnh softly crying.
“It’s going to be okay. We just need to keep our heads and figure out what happened.”
Lynn had stopped crying as Aiyana continued to comfort her, but if she was saying anything, Ashe couldn’t hear her. He could hear moaning coming from Murdock’s seat.
“How do you feel?”
“Like I was hit by a truck.” Ross paused for a few seconds to get his bearings. “We’re really in space, aren’t we?”
“Actually, I’m not sure, Ross. There was a lot of noise and vibration but then it stopped. We’re not floating around the cabin, so maybe we landed on some other part of the Earth.”
Murdock sat up, no longer confined to the gel, and started manipulating controls in front of him. Each station where they were seated had a display and they all suddenly came to life. The one in front of him showed the forward view while the one at Aiyana’s seat showed the rear. They could see Earth receding into darkness.
“We are way above orbital space.” When Ross looked back at Gordon he saw the older man had an expression of shock. “I suppose you want to know how I did that?”
“The Forerunner memories?”
“Probably. I mean there’s no other explanation, but I don’t have conscious recall of how to operate the ship. Only moments of insight.”
“If that’s what you’re selling, I’m buying, but the question is, where are we going and is it possible to get this thing back home?”
“I don’t know right now, Gordon. I can tell you we’re still accelerating. I’d guess we’re going a lot faster than any terrestrial spacecraft has.”
“Last year, the Juno space probe arrived at Jupiter and performed a slingshot maneuver using the planet’s gravity, Dr. Ashe. It accelerated to approximately 165,000 miles per hour.”
Ross and Gordon were surprised to hear Huỳnh’s voice.
“Sorry about before. I just got so scared.”
“We’re all scared Lynn, but like I said, we have to stay calm and work together. If Ross really does know something about how to operate this craft, there’s at least a chance we can get home safely.”
By this time, the Earth really did look like a small, blue marble in the rear facing display. Ross was intently studying the controls. He moved over in front of Lynn. “If I’m reading this right, it looks like some sort of velocity display.
Huỳnh leaned forward in her seat to get a better look. “You could be right Mr. Murdock, but without knowing the standard unit of measurement, we won’t be able to read it.”
“Call me Ross. Let’s assume the standard is the speed of light. After all, the Forerunners must come from outside our Solar System. I can’t imagine any planets in the neighborhood being able to support life so similar to ours.”
“We don’t know they’re that similar, Ross. They may look human superficially, but the preliminary medical reports indicate they are quite different internally.”
“Granted Ashe, but they breathe our air, seem to have the same gravity requirements. I’d say they come from an environment similar to ours, and Earth is the only local planet like that.”
“Ross, if you’re right about the speed of light being the velocity standard, then these readings could indicate decimals, fractions of light speed. See this symbol here? On Earth, we represent the speed of light with the lowercase letter ‘c’. This symbol might be the Forerunner equivalent.”
“Assuming that’s correct Lynn, then we’ve accelerated to maybe one three-hundredth of light speed.”
Lynn did the math in her head. “That’s just over 620 miles a second.”
“And we’re still accelerating.”
“Wait. Stop. Time out. I don’t feel a thing. When I take a trip on an ordinary jet aircraft, on takeoff, I can feel myself pressed back in my seat, and that’s only hundreds of miles per hour.”
“Aiyana, you feel those effects while accelerating but not when traveling at a constant speed.”
“Come on, Gordon. You just heard Ross say we’re still accelerating. We have what seems to be artificial gravity. Is that what’s keeping us from being splattered on the floor?”
“Maybe it’s like Star Trek,” Lynn volunteered. “Artificial gravity plating and inertial dampers, or maybe even some sort of inertialess drive.”
“As fantastic as all that sounds young lady, I can’t say that you’re wrong given our current experience,” Gordon mused.
“Wait a second.”
“Something Lynn said about the Juno probe. Didn’t NASA lose contact with it shortly after arriving at Jupiter?”
“Yes. It happens occasionally, but most of the time NASA’s work is spot on. What’s your point?”
“I don’t know, Gordon. Maybe nothing, but now that we’re out in space…”
“I think I know where Aiyana is going with this, Gordon. When the Soviets in the Ice Age accidentally triggered a communication device on their sphere, it was just a few weeks or months later when the blue Forerunners attacked them. I’m not willing to believe that even if they travel faster than light, they can get here from another star in that short of a time, especially in force.”
“Ross, you think the Forerunners have some sort of base in our Solar System?”
“I think they did in the Ice Age. I have no idea about now.”
“The indicator. Ross, we’ve stopped accelerating. Can you tell our velocity now?”
Murdock looked back and studied the read out for a second. “I think…yes, one two-hundredth of the speed of light.”
“About 930 miles a second, or…roughly 3,340,000 miles per hour.”
“Lynn, you said the Juno probe’s fastest speed was 165,000 miles per hour?”
“That’s right Aiyana. We’re traveling something like twenty times faster than the fastest spacecraft ever produced by human beings. The next question is where are we headed?”
Lynn noticed her hands were shaking and she could feel panic welling up inside her again. She had managed to distract herself for a while by helping Ross figure out how fast they were going, but now the terror of flying into the unknown had once again gripped her.
The Humvee dropped Travis off at the Folsom Base camp near the entrance to the caves. “Good luck, Sir. I’ve got to be heading back.”
“Thanks for lift, Sarge.” Fox jumped out of the Humvee and could hear it execute a quick U-turn and speed off as he ran for the entrance. Once inside, he looked around for Aiyana but couldn’t see her. Of course, the place was in a half panic. He could see disguised agents and uniformed soldiers coming through the gate from the past.
There was Byrd and his party. According to the duty roster, Holden was supposed to bring up the rear. He was bringing Ashe and Murdock back. Was it possible they were with Holden’s party? No. He’d heard the radio reports relayed from Folsom Base. The volcano had blown its top. Holden couldn’t get to them. They decided to jump forward in time with the ship. Now they’re somewhere lost in space.
Fox finally made it through the crowd to Byrd. “You’ve heard?”
“Yeah, they just told me. We’ve got four people aboard that thing?”
“Yeah. Zheutlin talked her way into getting through the gate and then hitching a ride to the spaceship. The detachment told me they delivered her to the ship and she was headed up the ramp when they picked up the ground crew and came back here. I also heard a report one of the technicians was still on board when it jumped.”
“Four people on a Forerunner ship in space. Any idea where it’s headed?”
“Not a clue, Fox. Shouldn’t you be somewhere else by the way?”
“Look, these are my friends. If Ashe hadn’t told me to stay behind and catch up with my family, I’d be on that ship with them.”
Travis didn’t know how to feel about that. On the one hand, he was enormously relieved to still be on Earth, to be able to go home to Cassie and the kids tonight. If he’d been on that ship, he might be lost forever, just like Ashe and the rest.
But he also felt guilty. He had been part of the team, starting to become a functional member. Maybe he could have helped somehow.
“Where the hell is Holden and that last transport?”
Byrd was screaming at one of the gate technicians who would have no idea about Holden.
“Sorry, Sir. The gate is open but we’re not getting a…”
“Wait!” A communications tech was calling out. “Byrd, I’m getting a transmission, garbled…something about them being attacked.”
“What? Keep the field open. Truman, Rodriquez, you’re with me.”
All three of them were still disguised as Folsom men. Travis was dressed like a 21st century rancher. Before anyone could stop him, Fox jumped through the gate with the other three.
About a hundred meters from the gate, they saw a Humvee turned on its side. Five people were coming at a run. Holden was limping, blood streaming down his left leg. A soldier was helping him lope along as fast as possible. There was another disguised agent taking point and a soldier bringing up the rear.
Travis was astonished to see they were running from a party of Folsom men. The volcanic eruption must have panicked them, then they encountered Holden’s vehicle and in blind terror attacked.
A spear flew through the air and narrowly missed the trailing soldier. He turned to fire his rifle.
“No!” Byrd yelled. “Do not shoot to kill.”
If it was possible, they didn’t want to take someone out of the gene pool whose descendants might make a difference to history someday. Sure, that one individual wouldn’t, but how many generations would he spawn multiplied by 10,000 years?
Byrd and Truman rushed forward to help while Rodriquez and Fox kept the gate secure. Travis realized that in his haste, he’d forgotten to bring a weapon. Rodriquez drew his M9 Beretta from under his cloak.
Another spear struck the rear soldier a glancing blow on the right shoulder. Byrd made it to him, pulled out his own handgun and fired several shots, hitting the ground just a meter or so in front of the attacking Folsoms.
They hesitated long enough for Truman to get Holden and the other man up to the gate and then through along with the agent on point.
“Get out of here, Fox. You can’t do any good.”
Rodriquez’s words stung but he was probably right. Byrd and the wounded soldier were just a few meters away when the Folsom’s courage returned and they charged. What could they possibly be thinking?
Another spear. This time Rodriquez was its victim, wounded in the gut. Fox caught him in his arms. Only Byrd and the other man were left. Travis set Rodriquez down. They were too far from the gate for Fox to simply shove him back into the present. He picked up the fallen man’s Beretta as Byrd got to him.
“Get the two wounded men through the gate. I’ll hold them off. No arguments, Byrd. No time.”
Byrd surprised Fox by actually doing what he was told. The man with the injured shoulder could walk but Byrd had to pick up Rodriquez. Travis could hear them behind him heading for the gate, only seconds away from escaping.
Fox fired several rounds at the ground in front of the Folsoms but this time they didn’t stop.
“I don’t what to hurt you, I don’t.” Travis was gritting his teeth and forcing himself to hold his ground in the face of the attacking Folsom men.
“Fox. We’re okay. Get your ass back here now!”
Travis turned and ran. He saw Byrd disappearing back through the field. Five meters, three, one, Fox was on top of the gate when he felt the heavy impact and the pain in his back. He didn’t know if it were shock or the effect of falling through the temporal field that made him feel so strange. Then everything went black.
“Do you really think we can eat one hundred year old Forerunner food, Ross?”
“There’s only one way to find out, Aiyana. Eat some.”
Ross had taken a break from working out the ship’s controls to look around the crew quarters and mess on the upper deck. No telling how long they’d be traveling and they had to consider survival.
“Thanks, Ross. I’ll stick with the emergency rations Gordon shared with me.”
“Those won’t last long, three days of emergency rations for two shared among four. We’ve been traveling only about six hours or so. What happens when that stretches to six days or six weeks?”
“Hopefully you’ll figure out how to turn this heap around by then.”
“If I don’t, we’ll have to figure out how to eat and sleep.”
It was Ashe who had turned to the first problem which was figuring out how to use the toilet. There was one and only one alcove off of the crew quarters that looked like it was supposed to be the restroom. One semi-sat inside as it wrapped around your pelvic area. Then you just eliminated. Afterward, Ashe said he felt a tingling sensation that Ross reasoned might be cleaning through sonic emissions.
Unfortunately, Ashe hadn’t found anything resembling a shower.
The mess had a table and chairs secured to the deck. There was nothing that looked like a stove, refrigerator, or pantry, but Ashe had discovered what looked like a microwave, except it didn’t open until after you pressed the controls.
Different combinations yielded different food stuffs, or what were supposedly food stuffs.
No one had the nerve to eat one. They came in different colors but they all looked about the size and shape of a brownie. No odor. Ross finally decided to brave it and have a bit. The first one tasted like a combination of cornbread and cherry jello. The second was vaguely like fish broth and apples. Murdock wondered if this represented the finest of Forerunner cuisine or if he was eating the equivalent of field rations.
Murdock was sitting back at the controls with Lynn next to him. Ashe walked up and asked, “How do you feel?”
“It’s been an hour since my meal and I feel fine. We haven’t found a source of water or anything else to drink, but I don’t feel hungry or thirsty. Hopefully that means we can metabolize the Forerunner food and that it provides all of the hydration we need as well.”
“I think the rest of us should wait a little while longer to make sure there isn’t some unpleasant after effect to eating the ‘alien biscuits’ as Ai calls them.”
“Where is she, anyway?
“She finally broke down and is using the ship’s toilet. I told her it was a little unnerving at first, but you get used to it.”
“I think I’ve got an idea where we’re headed, Ross.”
Huỳnh had been working with what looked to be the navigational controls while Ross had been on the upper deck. She found it helped to keep busy. Just thinking about their situation and not doing something brought back all her fears and made her want to curl up in a fetal position.
“The plane of the solar system is obvious here and this point seems to be the ship’s position relative to nearby major celestial objects.”
“What about that at the end of our course. It doesn’t seem major to me.”
“It’s major enough if it’s our destination. I’ll need you to help me with some of the specifics, but I have a pretty good idea what it might be.”
“It’s between Mars and Jupiter in the asteroid belt.”
“That’s pretty apparent, but I think these notations next to it might be size and mass.”
Ross stared at the indicators next to what could be their next landing point.
Try as he might, he couldn’t find anything that looked like manual controls or anyway to change course or steer. Yet there had to be a way.
Why were they on this course? Why were they on any course at all unless it was pre-programmed?
The Forerunner in Arizona of the past. He was sitting at the console. Ross had assumed he was in the seat hoping the gel would heal him, but what if he was in the process of taking off? What if he’d already begun to initiate the launch sequence but hadn’t gotten far enough?
The volcano tremors and the time jump had triggered the final steps somehow, and they launched. The only thing that made sense now was that their course through space was controlled by a computerized auto-pilot system.
He’d shared this with the others but now working with Lynn, was surprised that their destination, or at least their first port of call, was so close to Earth, relatively speaking.
“Sorry. Daydreaming.” He peered more closely at the display. “It looks like we’re heading for the single most massive object in the belt.”
“That can only be Ceres. It’s a dwarf planet and makes up about a third of the belt’s entire mass.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I’m a huge space nerd, Dr. Ashe. Why do you think I’m part of the operation? The chance to actually work onboard an alien spaceship is huge.” She sighed. “Or at least it was until I found myself in interplanetary space…against my will.”
“I have no idea, Ross. But it might make a good base of operations. It’s about 945 kilometers or 587 miles in diameter and has the mass of 0.00015 Earths. It has a tenuous water vapor atmosphere, probably outgassing from water ice on the surface. It’s a shame the Dawn probe stopped transmitting after only three days in orbit. It’s still there so we’ll see it, but I bet there a lot more to know about Ceres, especially since we’re going there.”
“How long, Ross?”
“Until we arrive? Best guess is three or four days at this speed. Of course, it might take longer since the ship will have to slow down before we get there.”
“What’s the total distance?”
“The relative positions of Earth and Ceres are constantly changing, Dr. Ashe, but from what Ross tells me, something like 257 million miles.”
“The best we’ve been able to do has been landing on the Moon and it’s less than 240,000 miles from Earth.” Ashe paused and then added, “Ross are you absolutely sure you can’t change course, head us back to Earth.”
“I can’t find any sort of controls to do that. Maybe the Forerunner ships always traveled using pre-programmed courses.”
“This one may have chased another Forerunner ship down to Earth, which means it needed to be piloted manually.”
“I don’t know, Gordon. Frankly, I’m afraid to try anything like that while we’re in flight. Maybe when we land, I’ll be able to figure it out.”
“I hope so Ross, because I just tried one of the alien biscuits and they taste awful.” Aiyana was climbing down the ladder.
Although there was no external enemy to guard against, at least not until they landed, Ashe and Murdock thought it was a good idea for someone to be awake and sitting at the controls at all times. Lynn wanted to take first watch, so the others climbed up to the upper deck. The two men were still dressed like Folsoms but had taken off their wigs hours ago.
“I’m not sure if I can sleep in one of those things.”
“They’re really comfortable, Aiyana. In fact, you’ll probably sleep better in the red gel than you would in your bed at home.”
“I spend most of my time at the Operation in the Arctic and my Army issued mattress is terrible.”
Ross chuckled. “Then tonight, you’ll sleep like a dream.
Ashe was tentatively giving his bed a try, as Aiyana was startled by what she saw in her peripheral vision; Ross stripping nude.
She turned back on him and spoke indignantly, “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
It was as if Ross had just now realized what was happening. “I don’t know. I mean, it just seemed natural to sleep in the gel without clothes.”
“If it bothers you, just keep your back turned until he gets in, Ai. He may be accessing information about how to sleep in these beds.”
“Fine.” There was a chill in her voice but then she had to ask herself why she’d become so upset suddenly? When you live in close quarters with people, privacy is a luxury and your standards of modesty tended to suffer. What was it about Ross that had set her off just now?
After Ross had installed himself, he was asleep less than thirty seconds later. It took Ashe and Zheutlin a little longer. They all had cell phones except for Ross and Ashe set his alarm to go off in four hours so he could relieve Huỳnh.
Murdock took the final watch and discovered why there were no bathing facilities on the ship. Somehow, among its other properties, the red gel cleaned you. He felt as if he were freshly showered. Not wanting to pull on his filthy Folsom man skins again, he found an orange-brown Forerunner skin suit and put it on. He startled Aiyana when he came down the ladder.
“Damn you, Ross! I thought you were an alien for a second.”
“Sorry, Aiyana. I just felt better putting one of these on than continuing to look like a Folsom man who had hijacked a spaceship. Anything happen on your watch?” He took his usual seat which was two to left of her’s.
“Not a peep. No red alerts or Klingon attacks.”
“That’s reassuring although Ceres does kind of look like the Death Star. Get some sleep. You really should try sleeping in the nude. Better than a hot shower and a cup of coffee when you wake up.”
“Dream on, Ross,” she smirked, but once up the ladder she gave the suggestion a second thought.
As nearly as Ross could figure it, they were eighteen hours out of Ceres. The crew was all now dressed in Forerunner jump suits. Aiyana and Lynn hadn’t found a way to launder their clothing and the jump suits seemed to stay cleaner than ordinary fabrics.
Although opinions varied about the palatability of the Forerunner biscuits, they seemed to satisfy hunger and thirst with no ill-effects. Huỳnh had the most difficult time sleeping nude in the same room with two men, but she had to admit Ross’s prediction about its effects was right. It was also interesting to note that the “bathroom” alcove didn’t have a door, so modesty about elimination and maybe sexual activity wasn’t an issue with the Forerunners.
“Looks like a big, round, lumpy rock.”
“Aiyana, we have the opportunity to make the first human landing on a dwarf planet. This is totally huge. If Ross can get us back to Earth, we could return with reams of data that the Dawn probe would never have been able to gather.”
“I’m sure we’re landing here for a reason, Lynn. If Ceres is concealing a Forerunner base in our Solar System, then we may have more important priorities than data gathering.”
“Okay, yes, I get that Ross, but like you said, this base is probably 10,000 years old. What are the chances that Forerunners are still here?”
“We’re going to find out, Lynn,” Ashe offered.
The spacecraft had been steadily decelerating for almost two days, but just as with their acceleration, they felt no effects. Now they were close, less than thirty minutes out and the ship started to vibrate. They were all in their control room chairs. Ross was trying to keep his eyes on all the indicators.
“Looks like something switched over, maybe our flight engines cut out and those used for landing and takeoff have engaged. Those inertial dampers have disengaged.”
“Anything else, Ross?”
“Yeah, Gordon. The nav console has changed. It’s giving a short-range view. I thought I caught a glimpse of the Dawn probe as it moved across the horizon. Wait! I see something. The display in front of Aiyana is showing what’s directly beneath us.”
“It’s opening, Ross. The planet. A circular opening. Must be a hatch. What’s that shooting out?”
“Automatic landing beams maybe?”
The ship lurched violently.
“I don’t know Lynn, but I think something’s gone wrong with the automation. We’re veering away from the opening. One of the landing beams has failed.”
Curiosity and a sense of adventure evaporated and Lynn stared at the rapidly approaching surface of the dwarf planet. “We’re going to crash!”
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 Ceres.