The Forerunner sphere was off course and out of control. It was going to miss the portal into the dwarf planet Ceres and crash on the surface!
The lighting changed in the control cabin and a loud, intermittent buzzing sounded, probably an alarm.
The configuration of the panels as well as shapes and colors of the controls shifted as if made of melting plastic. One panel in front of Ross stabilized and the panel sections glowed with a bright white.
Murdock stared at the panel. It was so familiar but he wasn’t sure what to do or if he should do anything at all. Finally, he pressed the panel to the far left twice. It started glowing yellow and he could feel an electric shock that made him jerk his hand back.
“Ross, the ship, it’s moving back toward the hatch.” The display in front of Aiyana showed them that something had radically corrected the direction of the spacecraft. If not for being encased in the red gel seats, everyone would have been tossed around the control room like loose ping-pong balls.
The ship’s motion stabilized and slowed only seconds before centering on and then descending into the large aperture in the surface of the dwarf planet.
No one noticed exactly when the landing struts had been extended, but the ship landed on a platform under the surface. The spacecraft was in some sort of artificial chamber. The monitor in front of Ashe showed the view over the top of the ship. The hatch was closing. Dim lighting shone in the docking bay around them.
Lynn was almost hyperventilating, but before she attracted Aiyana’s or anyone else’s attention, she focused on slowing her breathing down. “We’re down. We’re safe,” she kept saying to herself.
“Did you do that, Ross? Did you fly the ship?”
“Sorry, Gordon. I tried, but the ship would let me.”
“I saw the controls melt and change. I recognized the manual helm controls, but I didn’t know what they did. I took my best guess, but when I pressed the control buttons, I got a shock, as if the ship didn’t want me to pilot it.”
“Maybe it was some sort of malfunction, like a short-circuit.”
“I don’t know Gordon, but this experience definitely tells me I don’t know how to fly a spacecraft. I don’t think the Forerunner I encountered in the Soviet base was a pilot.”
“Is everybody okay? That was a rough landing.”
“I’m fine, Aiyana.” Lynn didn’t want the historian to worry about her any more than she already did.
“I think just our nerves suffered, Ai.” Ashe took a tentative step out of his seat. The floor was firm but his legs were shaky.
Ross got up next. “Artificial gravity is still on. If it wasn’t, from what Lynn has told us, we’d all be experiencing microgravity.”
Huỳnh leaned forward in her seat as she watched the control panels around them rearrange back into their original configurations and then wink out one by one. Only an occasional area of some of the panels still appeared active.
“I’ve got to see something.”
She got out of her seat and walked into the smaller control room through the doorway on the right. The four of them had now spent several days aboard the Forerunner craft, but no one had a clue what the purpose of the other room was.
Lynn came back out. “The controls in the other room haven’t become active throughout our trip. I think I’m right in assuming it’s an auxiliary control chamber to be used if this one sustains damage.”
“We can work that out later. Right now, we have to figure out why we’re here.”
“Right Dr. Ashe, uh…Gordon.”
Aiyana was still looking at the different visual displays which remained active. “Look. Some sort of tube is being extended toward our hatch.”
“Like a jetway for commercial aircraft maybe?”
“Could be, Gordon.”
The tube made a sealed connection with their outer hatch. The inner hatch to the airlock had closed right before launch and it was now opening. They could hear a loud rush of air, as if the tube on the other side were filling with atmosphere.
Presently, the outer hatch opened and the hollow tube awaited them.
“You two stay here. Ross and I will have a look around.”
“Nothing doing, Gordon. Lynn and I aren’t going to sit around in the ship while you two go exploring.”
“Ai, it could be dangerous.”
“If there were a horde of hostile Forerunners here, I think we’d know about it by now.”
“I think we should stick together,” Lynn volunteered. “Pool our resources.”
“What if the automatic pilot decides to launch the ship again and go back to Earth? Anyone not on board will be stuck here.”
“I wasn’t kidding when I talked about this being a huge opportunity. Look, I’m scared out of my mind, but just think of what we could learn. I mean, this place might hold the answer as to why the Forerunners visited Earth in the past.”
“She’s got a point, Gordon. We might need all of our combined skills. If we have any shot at learning the Forerunner language, Aiyana’s it.”
“I think you’re remembering something of that language yourself, Ross.”
“Plus Lynn’s technical skills are remarkable. She’s picked up a lot about the ship’s operation. She can probably do that with whatever technology we might encounter here.”
“Hey, a lot of that was thanks to your help, Ross.”
“Which again makes my point. We all need each other.”
“No matter what we do, we take a chance. Okay, let’s go.”
They stepped into the tunnel. Atmosphere, temperature, gravity all were the same as on the ship.
“The Forerunner’s have replicated their artificial environment inside Ceres. I can’t begin to guess the power requirements for that. In fact, unless the aliens were naturally resistant to radiation, their tech must also protect their ships in space as well as this…base.”
Lynn stopped talking and like the others, noticed an eerie silence. No electrical or mechanical sounds. Now that the tube had pressurized, no sound of air flowing.
“Absolute silence for ten thousand years.”
“What makes you say that, Gordon. How do we know the Forerunners don’t visit this place periodically, even recently. The base as Lynn calls it seems to be well cared for. No dust or deterioration.”
“Good point, Ai. That means direct danger from the beings who constructed it isn’t exactly non-existent.”
As they approached the far end of the tube, the large hatch opened with a whooshing sound. Lights flickered on one by one down the corridor ahead of them. The air was cold at first, but they could feel it begin to warm, as if systems that had been inactive for untold ages were coming back to life.
They walked a few meters forward and then heard the hatch close behind them.
“Wait. No.” Lynn turned and was about to run back before Ashe stopped her.
“Probably automatic. I think it’ll open back up when we approach it.”
“Let’s test that.” Aiyana walked back toward the hatch they’d just come through and it opened up.
She turned around and walked back to the rest of them. “Guess you were right, Gordon.”
“Look at this.” Murdock had gone on ahead and had come to an intersection. “Straight, left, and right.” See the object suspended from the ceiling in the middle? I think that’s telling us what’s in each direction.”
“So which way, Ross?”
“I have no idea, Aiyana. Care to take a guess? I think both the markings and the colors are supposed to tell us something.”
“I bet it’s a big place. Probably multileveled. It’ll take a long time to explore.”
“The walkie talkies, Gordon!”
“Of course, Lynn. We can split up into teams and still keep in contact with one another.”
“I’ll run back and get them.”
Once again Huỳnh’s enthusiasm overcame her natural hesitancy. She was back down the corridor and through the hatch in just a few seconds.
“Sure, Ai. We use them to talk to one another in the past. No cell service so handheld radios are the only way to go.”
“You each had one, but what about me, Gordon?”
“Three radios, three search teams. We can cover the largest area that way.”
“I don’t think so. Better to go in pairs. This is a really strange place and it might help to have a buddy right with you in case something happens.”
Lynn came running back with the three radios. “Here Gordon, one for you Ross, who gets the third?”
“You keep yours, Lynn. Ai suggested that we team up in pairs. Since you and Ross have the greatest sense of Forerunner space technology, how about you come with me, and Aiyana goes with Ross?”
“Alright Ross, which way?”
It was Ashe and Huỳnh who discovered the main “reception area” down the corridor straight ahead. Lynn called it that because it seemed laid out like the main entrance of an organization and included plenty of seated. Most importantly thought, was a comprehensive map of the entire installation.
Murdock and Zheutlin had rejoined the other pair after having only been separated for about fifteen minutes.
The “map” was holographic, which was the first sign that the Forerunners used such technology. Like the “street sign,” the purpose and function of each area of the base was indicated by symbols and colors. After long minutes, Ross found something he thought should be their goal.
“A time gate.”
It was back the way they came and to the right, then down five floors. The pictograph was unmistakable. It was a gate.
“I know the Soviets derived time travel technology from Forerunner artifacts, but we could never be sure the aliens actually used that application of their tech as well.”
“Now we do, Gordon. Let’s go see what we can see.”
The quartet was standing in front of an inactive gate. It was slightly smaller than their standard personnel gate and the controls weren’t contained in separate rooms.
Instead, there was a single standalone console just a meter inside the chamber. There was dim lighting coming from the walls and ceiling as well as from the console.
I don’t know, Lynn. The general configuration of the controls is like the ship’s but…”
“Aiyana, remember when I said the Forerunner I had telepathic contact with wasn’t a spaceship pilot. I think it might have been closer to a time gate technician.”
“I’ve had these memories for months, but I can’t pin down gender in the Forerunner’s thoughts. Maybe they don’t have the concept or maybe it only matters during mating.”
“So it, then?”
“Yeah. I think it knew how to run this device or something a lot like it.”
Don’t keep us in suspense, Ross.”
“Give me a second, Lynn. This isn’t exactly like reading Spanish, and I’m not used to being the linguistic expert, particularly with Aiyana and Gordon around.”
Long minutes passed as Murdock continued his detailed study of the console. The lights in the room had gotten subtly brighter, as if more power were being shunted into the chamber.
“I think I’ve got it. The gate is set for several predetermined coordinates in time. This one is the furthest back, the last Ice Age approximately ten to twelve thousand years ago. The next is four thousand years ago. The Bronze Age.”
“The last one?”
“That’s the future, Gordon. The not too distant future. Maybe fifty years from now. Perhaps a bit sooner.”
“I don’t understand. The only living Forerunners we know about came from the Ice Age. They found the Soviet’s time gate into the Bronze Age, jumped forward, and destroyed it. If they existed in the Bronze Age too, why bother?”
“Aiyana, I think the Forerunner species natively lived during our last Ice Age. I think they’re using space travel and time travel to accomplish some goal.”
“I don’t know. I do get a feeling though that what the blue Forerunners want and what the orange ones want aren’t necessarily the same.”
During the conversation, no one noticed that the lights on the console were shifting and blinking. The first sign of a change was that the temporal field crackled to life inside the gate.
“Oh my God.” Lynn involuntarily took two steps back. “Something’s coming through.”
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.
I could have made this particular chapter longer, but I’ve noticed my longer pieces tend not to be read as often, probably because of the time involved in reading them. So I created a “cliffhanger” here at just over 2100 words. To be continued.
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 The Encounter.