The four time travelers who had become reluctant astronauts aboard an alien spacecraft now sat at their stations in that ship awaiting takeoff.
Ross Murdock activated the manual control panel in front of him and opened the large hatch that had been covering the landing bay exposing the ship to space. The tube connecting their Forerunner ship to the interior of the Ceres Forerunner base had been retracted and, as a flight director at NASA might put it, “all systems were go” for their launch and mission to Europa.
The Orange Forerunner from 10,000 years ago was right. All the four of them had to do was go to sleep for the night. When they woke up, they started to remember what they had learned through the alien’s telepathic teaching and translating device.
For instance, Murdock finally understood how to manually control their vessel, although most of their trip would be controlled by computer navigation, the coordinates to their next destination having been fed in by the Forerunner.
What they didn’t know was if there were still a Blue Forerunner base somewhere below the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa and if so, how they were going to reach it.
Ross sat back in his red gel seat like the others and let the ship’s autopilot take over. The interialess drive wouldn’t engage until they were out of the dwarf planet’s gravity well, so the ship shivered and vibrated as it left the landing platform and rose away from the docking port and Ceres.
The rear display screen in front of Aiyana Zheutlin’s seat showed the largest object in the asteroid belt rapidly receding as they picked up speed.
“According to the navigation panel, we should reach Europa orbit in about five days.” Lynn Huỳnh woke up this morning fully fluent in the operation of the ship’s navigational and engineering systems.
Aiyana was still working through the ship’s communications systems in her mind. She knew from the Forerunner that the standard methods of the aliens were incompatible with traditional radio equipment, such as that onboard the doomed Dawn space probe. An automated attempt to communicate with the probe by the Forerunner computer systems resulted in destroying the Earth craft’s ability to transmit and receive. The historian and linguist was wondering if that equipment aboard their ship could be changed letting them contact Operation Retrograde on Earth.
Lynn was considering something similar. Had the Blue Forerunner base inside Europa, assuming it still exists, disabled the Juno probe in the same way, or was NASA’s loss of signal from Juno due to something more mundane?
The team leader, Gordon Ashe, primarily an archaeologist and cultural expert, was hoping what he had learned from the Orange Forerunner would help him comprehend how to understand the Blues should they encounter them, and more than that, decipher enough of their technology so they could restore Earth’s original timeline and either prevent or reverse the climate change phenomena that threatened to cause humanity’s extinction half a century from now.
“Memory is a funny thing, don’t you think so, Aiyana?” Huỳnh was sitting across from Zheutlin at the simple table in the ship’s mess on its upper level. She was munching on one of the Forerunner food squares, this one tasting like cinnamon flavored oatmeal mixed with wasabi sauce.
“What do you mean, Lynn?” Zheutlin was watching her companion eat but wasn’t hungry enough to sample the ship’s rations again.
“I mean that when we were traveling to Ceres, we ate these things because there was nothing else to eat after Gordon’s and Ross’s emergency rations ran out. We were taking an awful chance that this food would either poison us or that it didn’t contain anything nutritional for our bodies. Now I know as much about this little cake as I do any meal I’ve ever had.”
“We’re all going through that process. As we do things on ship, have new experiences, memories related to those activities spring up from what the Forerunner taught us. I don’t know if it’s incredibly exciting or unnerving.”
“I’m supposed to be the nervous one, remember?” The both chuckled at Lynn’s self-depreciating joke.
“I think we finally have the time to realize the enormity of what we’re going through. We’re the first people ever to travel past the Moon’s orbit, to do so in an alien vessel, to have friendly first contact with an alien who natively lives over 10,000 years in the past, and who are now voyaging to a moon of Jupiter’s on a mission to save humanity.”
“I’ve been thinking about that.” Lynn took the last bite of her food square and savored the strange and tangy aftertaste. “What do we do when we get there? Ring the doorbell? Even if there were something like that, we’re on an Orange ship heading toward Blue territory. The Forerunner said that the issue of people having time travel technology had caused a rift between the Orange and Blue Forerunners, so much so that they started shooting at each other. What makes us think that they won’t try to kill us the second they see us?”
“I think I can answer that.” The two women turned to see Ross Murdock climbing the ladder up to their level. He got on deck and helped himself to a food square from the dispenser.
“I’ve been thinking about the problem like Captain Lewis might think of how to take the Thetis into a Soviet sub base.”
“He’d never make it, Ross. The Soviets would immediately recognize the Thetis as a US sub and blow it out of the water.”
“Sorry Lynn,” Aiyana apologized. The USS Thetis is a nuclear submarine we used in the Bronze Age to take us from the gate in the arctic to other destinations like Britain. Amos Lewis is the boat’s Captain.”
“Oh, okay.” Lynn had never been trained as an agent, so there was a lot about the lives of her three companions she didn’t know. Unlike Murdock’s experience with the Blue Forerunner’s telepathic device, the minds of the four humans weren’t linked together by the Orange. In Ross’s case, he had the memories of not only the Blue, but of a Soviet Major named Romanovich who had died in an alien attack.
“So what’s your bright idea, Ross? If Lewis wanted to get a sub into a Soviet base, it would have to look and sound like a Soviet sub.”
“Exactly, and that’s where you come in, Aiyana.”
“Oh wait. I see what you mean. It’s not so much what we look like but what sort of signature we put out, both communications and energy.”
“I get it now,” Lynn chimed in. “You alter the communications frequencies to match the Blue’s while I do the same thing with the energy signature of the ship’s drive.”
“I wonder how come we didn’t think of it before?”
“Because I’m a thief, Aiyana. That’s how I thought of it.”
“So you’re a natural at breaking into locked places, and the Blue’s base at Europa, if it’s still there, is the big tamale of all locked places.”
“How long do you two think the work will take?”
“Depends. I’ll need specific data on Blue communications systems.”
“Same here, Ross. I studied the systems on this ship but never had a chance to visit the Blue derelict back in the past.”
“That’s also where I come in. The Blue I had telepathic contact with wasn’t a pilot, but it was some sort of technician or engineer and knew multiple systems, including time gates and spacecraft. Guess Forerunners aren’t quite as specialized as we humans.”
“Or maybe the underlying principles of those technologies are very similar, Ross.”
“Could be, Lynn. That might mean space propulsion and time travel are somehow related.
“So if I gave you the data on Blue communications, what do you think, Aiyana? How long?”
“Maybe a day for me, Ross. How about you, Lynn?”
“I’ll have to take a look at the engineering consoles again and making those changes in flight might be a little tricky. You’ll have to look over them with me, Ross. I can probably let you know for sure in an hour or so, but I’m betting the work will take no more than a day or two tops.”
“How’s it going, Gordon?”
Aiyana was busy configuring the communications console while Lynn was at an engineering station in the auxiliary control room as Murdock landed in his seat just to the right of Ashe.
“I’m still thinking, processing information. It seems I’ve been given the primary responsibility of gathering the data the Blues collected on the fractured and tangential timelines. If we can get a complete map we may be able to repair a lot, maybe most of the damage that’s been done.”
“You sound unsure about that, Gordon.”
“Think about it. Every time the Soviets or us use a time gate, we do damage to history. Most of it is pretty minor, but some of it is huge. The damage to Earth’s climate is the single most disastrous thing we’ve done to ourselves. I mean, Lynn and I were taught how to alter our time gates to prevent any further damage, but that doesn’t change what’s already happened. Plus, that does nothing to stop the Soviets from continuing to mess things up.”
“I just had another horrible thought, Gordon. The Blues compiled their time map for the last time anywhere between 11,000 and 4,000 years ago. Granted, they were monitoring all of the jumps we made from our present, but at some point they must have stopped. And yet right now, the Soviets are probably using their gates and so are we, so the map won’t be complete.”
“If only there were some way we could get word back to Kelgarries, Ross.”
“That’s actually a lot harder than I thought it would be, Gordon.” Aiyana had overheard their conversation.
“I’m trying to adjust our communications output so that it matches Blue frequencies and profiles. As far as I can tell, their communications systems are no more compatible with traditional radio than the Orange arrays. I think I can make the modifications so we can talk to Earth, but it will take time and I can’t do that and also put out a Blue-consistent signature.”
“So Earth has to wait and so does the past and the future.”
“That’s about it, Gordon. Sorry.”
“No, you’re fine. I’m just worried that we’ll get to Europa and won’t find what we need to save Earth.”
“That’s it. From a Blue’s point of view, we now look, sound, and taste like a Blue scout ship. Unless they actually look at us in visible wavelengths and see the Orange markings on the hull, they’re going to think we’re one of their own.”
Lynn Huỳnh felt incredibly proud of herself and she was beaming with a new sense of confidence. She’d always gotten satisfaction and a certain amount of personal and professional validation by being the best at her job. Now that she knew what she was doing aboard ship, she felt a lot of her anxiety fade away.
“Same thing for the communications setup. Just like when we approached Ceres and the base picked up our ship’s automatic beacon. If there is an automated entrance to the Blue base at Europa, it should open right up for us and take us inside.”
“At least now, I could take control of the vessel if something went wrong like at Ceres. Good thing the on board computer compensated when the base’s landing beam malfunctioned.
“We’re ready then. Lynn says we’re a day out of Europa and that the ship is starting its breaking maneuver. Fun and games are over. Time to get ready to work.” Gordon tried to make light of the situation, but while his three teammates seemed more than competent at their tasks, their leader felt terribly insecure about his own.
One thing bothered him more than anything else. If the Blues could chart disturbances in the timeline, why couldn’t the Oranges do so as well?
“We’ve achieved orbit, Ross. Aiyana, now we’ll find out if the changes the both of us made paid off.”
“It’s impressive that the ship entered orbit without me having to take over and manually pilot us in. Was this the Orange’s doing when it programmed the ship?”
One orbit, two, three. No activity from Europa.
“Glad this thing has an electromagnetic field that shields us from radiation. From what you’ve told us Lynn, being this close to Jupiter’s radiation belt would pretty much cook us.”
“It puts out 10 times the amount of radiation as Earth’s Van Allen belts, but traveling in interplanetary space is also really dangerous. It’ll be a miracle if we ever manage to colonize other planets such as Mars someday.”
“Oh I don’t know young lady. Ships like this one might unlock a lot of opportunities. Radiation shielding, artificial gravity, and the ship’s other technologies could all be implemented in future human space flight and colonization of other worlds.”
“Assuming the Oranges let us keep it, Gordon.”
“Ross, the Orange Forerunner at Ceres didn’t say anything about taking it back when we were done, and we’ll need the ship to get home and implement its plan to repair our…”
“Wait. I’m getting some sort of signal.”
“The ship’s engines are responding, Aiyana. The manual controls are still offline, though.”
“Ross, I think that’s because navigation beams from the surface are in contact with the ship. I can see the readings on my engineering panel.”
“Then it’s just like Ceres. An automated system is bringing us into the Blue base.”
“We don’t know that it’s automated, Ross. It could be that the Blues have come forward in time through a gate. We may face living Forerunners when we land.”
“If we land, Gordon. We’re being pulled down, but there’s nothing below is but ice.”
“We’re coming down really fast. Ross, can you slow us down?”
“Not without access to the manual controls. I’m trying to get to them but I can’t bring them online.”
“If we don’t slow down, we’re going to crash into the surface of Europa. Where’s the opening to the landing bay?”
“Wait. Just below us. A glow. Is the ice melting?” Lynn pointed to the monitor directly in front of Aiyana.
“I’m getting something. A voice.”
“Then there are living Forerunners still at the base.” Ross spoke in hushed astonishment. Even if they didn’t collide with Europa’s frozen surface and managed land safely, their reception could mean a sudden end to their mission, and if they failed, the human race was condemned to death.
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. My adaptation is loosely based on her work but significantly deviates from it in the later chapters such as this one.
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 My World is Blue.