At what used to be Folsom base in a hidden canyon in 21st century Arizona, four men and two women walked through the time gate temporal field and disappeared. Kelgarries said a silent prayer. His long wait for their return began…or so he thought.
Ashe, Murdock, Zheutlin, Huỳnh, Fox, and Romanovich stepped through the other side of the gate. A forerunner base, operational, new…and populated.
“They’re dying. They’ll all dying.” Ross stared in horror suspecting the terrible secret of the alien time gate modifications.
There must have been dozens of Forerunners dressed in their blue-gray skinsuits. They had all collapsed on the floor, writhing in pain, choking.
“Back,” Ashe commanded. Back before the gate closes.”
It had only been seconds. Kelgarries saw the six agents walk through the active temporal field. They’d leave it on for a few minutes to make sure things were safe on the other end.
They weren’t. Ashe, Murdock, and the rest rushed back through only seconds after departure.
“What the hell happened? The probes said it was all clear on the other end.”
“It was a trap, Major. We were the trap.” Murdock’s worst fears had been realized. It wasn’t just the gate. It must also be them.
“I’ve been reading your reports with great interest, Dr. Link. You say you’re not sure if the Blue and Orange Forerunners are the same species?”
Dr. Edward Nieves was the head of Operation Retrograde’s medical division. David Link had been brought into the program when the alien bodies had been recovered by Gordon Ashe’s team. Link was an excellent coroner and forensic archaeologist, although this was the first time any practitioner had access to subjects from another world.
“I know there’s more than a little speculation involved. The best preserved specimen we have is the Orange that was discovered in the gelatinous compound in its spacecraft. We know a great deal about it. All of the Blue bodies had been exposed to the elements for a century or more, so there was a lot less to work with, but I believe that in spite of the outward similarities, they were fundamentally different species.”
“Any possibility of some common ancestry? Your latest report seems to suggest this.”
“Possible but inconclusive, Dr. Nieves. I’ve had my team working on the remains for months and we’ll keep working, but it would help if the specimens were more recently…deceased.”
“That doesn’t sound like one of the world’s foremost forensic archaeologists talking.”
“It would help if I were also a xenopaleopathologist, but I don’t think there is such a thing.”
“Not up until now, Dr. Link.”
The Blue and Orange Forerunner bodies were being held at what was thought to be an abandoned military base in southern Nevada. Link had been lured to the program from his position at UC San Francisco not only by a generous salary, but the incredible opportunity to examine the remains of sentient alien beings. Technically, he was on loan and not a permanent member of the project, but he had to admit to himself that he could make a career out of this research.
He walked out of the administration building into the scorching heat, fumbled inside his suit jacket pocket, and fetched out his sunglasses. David Link hadn’t told his boss everything. There were details he ordered his staff to keep out of the reports. David wasn’t sure he was right about those details. He wasn’t sure he could trust his own conclusions. He needed time to do more tests. Even if he could prove it all, he didn’t know what impact the startling revelations might have.
Edward J. Nieves double checked his bag. He was due back at the arctic base. An Air Force jet was being refueled for the return trip. He zipped up the small carry on and left his temporary quarters at Basecamp. A jeep would take him to the airfield.
Of course he was having Link and his people watched. One of the junior doctors and a nurse had both been recruited for the task. Before meeting Link at the Basecamp facility, he had a brief stopover in DC for a clandestine meeting with the head of a little known division of the CIA. Nieves himself was playing a dual role.
Kelgarries had consented to make a deal with the devil which included bringing a Soviet onto Gordon Ashe’s team. He agreed with his superior that there could be other Red operatives in the Operation. It had happened before. They had to watch everyone, especially those from the outside like Link, especially those who kept secrets.
The irony of that last thought didn’t go unnoticed by the physician turned spy.
“I’ve got to admit that you’ve outdone yourself again, Kelgarries. I mean, you got an unmodified portable gate out here and almost ready for activation in just over two days, but what’s the rush?”
“It’s Murdock, Gordon. He wants to find out what happened to those Blues you saw, and I don’t think he’s convinced it was just the gate that killed them, if they really died. He believes somehow that the six of you have been changed, that somehow you all were the catalyst that caused the Blues to start dying the second you stepped through the field.”
Gordon Ashe and John Kelgarries stood at a distance as they watched the technicians construct the time gate under the shelter that ideally prevented them from being observed from above, especially from space.
Ross was standing enough of a distance from the workers not to be in the way. Lynn was actually helping with the construction, glad to have something to do, but she much rather would have been in Nevada where the alien corpses were being kept. That’s where their scout ship ended up.
She and Ross were probably the world’s greatest authorities on how to operate the craft, but the Operation’s scientists had first dibs on investigating it now that they’d returned to Earth. Of course, they were working off her’s and Murdock’s detailed reports.
Aiyana and Vasnev were inside the cave out of the wind. She was practicing her Russian with him and he was basking in the company if the attractive linguist and historian.
“You are Polish are you not?” Romanovich was also something of a linguist and Zheutlin had certain inflections in her voice that the Russian recognized.
“My father’s from Poland. My mother is English.”
“Was he a defector?”
“Yes, Major. Does that bother you?”
“Not at all. What’s done is done. Unlike some of my comrades, I am just a simple soldier. The Army is my life, not political intrigue.”
“I don’t believe that for a second, Romanovich.”
“Please, call me Vasnev, Aiyana. We are partners after all.”
“You’re here to make sure we don’t compromise Soviet interests. Don’t tell me you’re not political.”
“What are you, Aiyana? A historian and linguist who gave up the chance to be the Dean of the Department of History at Cambridge in order to be a time traveling spy?”
“For the record Vasnev, I became the Head of the Operation’s Historical division and only started working as a time agent out of necessity.”
“Then you should understand me, Aiyana. I am a creature of necessity as well.”
Travis Fox stood on the ridge above the Canyon of the Moon looking down. He couldn’t see much of the operation because of the covering over the gate and base camp. He loved the cool mornings out here in the desert, the soothing breeze, but it wouldn’t stay cool long.
The radio at his belt crackled to life. “Fox. Come in, Fox. This is Blair, over.”
Travis lifted the walkie-talkie to his face and pressed the transmit button. “Fox here. What’s up? Over.”
“The Major says the gate’s just about ready. We need you back down in the canyon, over.”
“Got it, Captain. Coming down. Over and out.”
“Out.” Toni Blair liked to get the last word.
An hour later, The six time agents once again stood in front of the gate. The modified device they used before had been taken apart and shipped back to their arctic headquarters for further analysis.
Kelgarries addressed them again. “You’ve all been medically checked and we can’t find any anomalies. To the best of our knowledge, you are clean and ready to go through the gate.”
The Army officer hoped that was true. Murdock had raised doubts and Kelgarries had to admit that it might take weeks of comprehensive tests to make absolutely certain the other gate hadn’t affected them in some way. He thought about not sending them back, but there wasn’t another team anywhere nearly as qualified to complete this mission as they were.
“You have the same mission as before. Go back and determine what it is about this time period that is impacting the timeline and, if possible, repair it. We’ll leave the gate on for five minutes after you go through, then shutdown, reopening it for five minutes every 48 hours. You’ve got one week before retrieval unless you find out something requiring we override the mission schedule.”
Instead of a cheerful thumbs up, this time Gordon solemnly nodded.
“Time portal activated. Temporal field is stable. You can walk through when ready.” The control voice announced the team’s imminent departure.
Gordon turned to face the gate. “Let’s go.” He started walking and the team followed. Aiyana and Vasnev were to his left while Ross and Lynn were on his right. They walked through together and once again vanished from the 21st century.
“Where the hell is the Forerunner base?” Aiyana only voiced what everyone was thinking.
“We didn’t come out the same place we did before.”
“That’s impossible, Gordon. The gate can move us in time, but geographically, the virtual point-to-point link through sub-space puts us at the same exact spot on the globe that the gate occupies in the present.”
“You’ve got eyes and a memory, Ross,” exclaimed the time agent leader. “We are on the same spot, right in the middle of a canyon.”
“Looks more like a wide, shallow riverbed to me, Ashe.”
“An arroyo, Romanovich,” Travis corrected him.”
“That rock face.” Huỳnh pointed directly ahead of them. “That must be the future site of our cave, and in the back of it and underground is the Forerunner base.”
“The gate should be open for another few minutes, Aiyana. Tell Kelgarries what happened. We don’t need extraction, but he should know what we’ve found so far.”
“Got it, Gordon.” They were all wearing miniature ear buds and throat mikes so they could not only communicate with each other at a distance, but back through the gate when it was open.
Lynn had pulled out her Forerunner sensing device or the “tricorder” as she called it. “There’s a Forerunner energy signature present, Gordon. Faint but regular.”
“No sign of living beings, but like I said, the energy signature is weak. Probably shielded by the rock. I might not be getting everything.”
“Kelgarries acknowledges our situation, Gordon. The gate’s going off. We’re on our own for the next two days.”
“Cloud cover. It’s cooler here.” Travis observed the change in weather and apparently in climate.
“At the last mission briefing, Kelgarries said it would be autumn when we arrived, not summer. Yes, it is cooler.”
“Romanovich, you, I, and Aiyana will set up camp. Lynn, continue your scans. Travis and Ross, recon the area.”
“Copy that, Ashe.” Murdock said that just to annoy Gordon. “Come on, Travis. Let’s see what there is to see.”
“The drone they sent through before said the area was clear of humans. Big herd of Mastodons up north, but over ten kilometers away, so no threat there.”
They each took a direction and made a sweep of the area, but even the Apache didn’t notice the figure watching them from a hidden vantage point.
“There might be a way in without digging, but my scans were inconclusive.” Huỳnh was giving her report. They’d set up the shelters and were sitting around a small camp fire having just finished a small meal.
“Well, keep at it. We need a way in that doesn’t require a lot of excavation.”
“Will do, Gordon.”
“What do you think happened, I mean with the other gate?”
“I have a theory Travis, but that’s all it is.”
“Please share it with us, Dr. Ashe.”
“Sure, Romanovich. I think that somehow, the modifications to the gate the Orange gave us on Ceres were a lot more extensive than even our top scientists and engineers knew. I think those modifications did two things. The first was to actually alter where we came out on the other side. Somehow, instead of inside the canyon, we emerged directly inside the base.”
“I think I can guess the second, Gordon.”
“You’re right, Ross. The second was to turn us into lethal weapons. Somehow, by the time we got to the other side of the gate, the field had made us toxic to the Blues.”
“I said it was a theory, Aiyana. It’ll be up to the eggheads at headquarters to figure out the how of it.”
“What about the why?”
“I don’t know that either. We know there’s some sort of rift between the Oranges and the Blues, but it looks a lot more serious than I thought, and it also looks like it’s the Oranges who are looking to spill blood.”
“I am not overly fond of the Blues Ashe, so this comes as something of a revelation to me.”
“I’m not surprised, Romanovich. After all, they did destroy your bases in the Ice Age and Bronze Age.”
“How did you manage to escape anyway, Vasnev?”
“I suppose now is as good a time to tell you as…”
Another voice calling to them from near the entrance of the canyon.
“Who the hell?” Fox was on his feet like a shot. “I would have sworn there wasn’t another human being within at least a day’s walk in any direction.”
The rest slowly stood up.
“It’s only one man, Travis. The Folsoms are native here and probably good at concealing themselves.”
“Can…uh…” the newcomer said several words in a language the time agents couldn’t understand. Then, “Can…approach…come?”
“English? Here? How?”
“I think we’re about to find out, Aiyana.” Then Gordon raised his voice so the stranger could hear him. “Yes! Come closer. We won’t hurt you.”
“Smart,” Ross murmured to Gordon. “He announced himself right as he came in so if we were hostile, he’d still have a chance to get away.”
“Everyone, keep your hands at your sides. We don’t want to frighten him.”
“He’s carrying a spear, Gordon.”
“He’s not holding it in a position where he could throw it at us, Aiyana. Be patient.”
Romanovich did like the rest, but his hand drew closer to his sidearm and he’d unsnapped the restraint so he could easily access the weapon.
The Folsom man approached to within about six meters and then slowly lowered his spear to the ground. He walked a bit closer and then began chuckling as if he were on the verge of hysterics.
“Ashe. It is…it’s you.”
“You know me?”
The Folsom was only two meters away when he stopped walking. “Yes. It’s been long. Uh…sorry. Don’t speak English…much anymore. It’s me.” The primitive used his right hand to touch his chest. “Aramazd. Louis…Louis Aramazd.” The man said his own name as if it were unfamiliar to him.
“Oh my God, Louis! How?” Gordon moved forward.
“Can I come…sit?”
“Yes, of course. I barely recognize you. Yes, sit by the fire.”
Ross got some water and rations while Gordon helped Louis sit down.
“You look older, Louis. How long have you been here? What happened?”
“Hard to remember.” The former time gate technician gulped down some of the water and tore savagely into the dried meat and fruit Murdock had provided. “Don’t talk about it much anymore.”
“Take your time. You’re among friends.”
“Friends. Strange. Civilized people.”
“What happened, Louis. All we know is that the temporal field from your time gate somehow interacted with an active Forerunner energy source and caused what we call a time storm. When we got there, got here, there was nothing. No crater, no sign of an explosion, everything was just gone, like you’d never been here.”
Aramazd paused for a long time. His face contorted, as if it were painful to remember or perhaps just very difficult. “What happened?
“Yes, what happened. All of us, in the cave, out of the cave. We came…were put here. The past.
“Avi…uh…no…Byrd. Yes, Byrd, the soldiers, everyone. Here. He…Byrd knew about when.”
Louis suddenly became excited and clutched Gordon by the shoulders. Romanovich nearly drew his weapon but Murdock grabbed his arm. “Wait,” he whispered. Vasnev nodded and relaxed, though he was still alert.
“Ashe! No gate here. No way home. Equipment, power, all gone. Just us. All of us. Trapped. Stuck.”
Louis let Gordon go and sat back. He hung his head between his knees and started sobbing. “No hope. No home. Just here.”
“How long, Louis? How long have you been here?”
“Kept track. Don’t know why. Thought of rescue at first, for the first year.”
Aramazd said a series of words even Zheutlin couldn’t figure out.
“Ten. Ten years, Gordon. Ten.”
They continued to sit and listen. Louis was calmer now. He seemed exhausted.
“Ten, Gordon. Avi…uh, Byrd. We use other language. Folsom. Yes, that’s what you call them. We hunt. Trade. Even some of their women…mate.”
“You became allies with the local Folsom tribes to survive.”
“Um…yes. Became…them. Had to. Survive. Wait for rescue. No rescue came. This is our place, our home, our now.”
“Why were you here in the canyon?”
“Byrd. Never gives up. Every moon…month. He sends us. Some of us. To come. To check. To see.”
“To see if a retrieval team has arrived.”
“Retrieval. Yes. That. He made me come. Didn’t want to. No hope. Want to stay with tribe. Woman. Children.”
“Aiyana, will you take Louis into my tent. He looks like he needs to lie down.”
“Yes. Been away from tribe days. Not much food, water. Tired. I’m tired.”
“Sure Gordon.” She stood and walked over to Louis offering her hand. “Remember me? Aiyana?”
“Aiyana. Yes. Language. I remember.”
She led him into Ashe’s tent. They could hear her softly talking to Louis.
Murdock sat close to Ashe. “I think we’ve found the event or one of them.”
“Exactly, though I didn’t expect this. I thought maybe the Blue base…”
“It’s got to be the Folsom base personnel. They’ve been here for ten damn years, interacting with the local people trying to survive.”
“Ten years is a long time, Ross. They gave up on rescue and I don’t blame them. We had no idea they’d be here.”
“They’ve mated with women from other tribes, had children, children who should never have been born. How would the lives of the tribes they’ve met be different if Byrd and the others hadn’t been transported here?”
“I believe Ross is correct, Ashe. If you lost a team to your time storm and they were forced to live here for years, have offspring…” Romanovich’s voice trailed off.
“Their children.” Travis spoke up for the first time since Louis walked into camp. Their children multiplied by 14,000 years give or take. How many generations lived and died in that time who never should have existed in the first place?”
“Even with the high mortality rates in this age, limited lifespans, enough would have survived going forward in time to tip the balance of history. You don’t need 240 separate time events, Ross. This would be enough I think.”
“You’re probably right Vasnev, but what do we do about it? The damage is done.”
“Take them home.”
“Does that include their children who have never seen the future, Travis? Does that include wives and husbands who are native to this time?”
“Ross, we can’t abandon them here, and how can we ask them to come back and leave their families behind?” Lynn tried hard to imagine what this man and the rest had gone through. She’d only briefly met Aramazd when she and her technical party were sent back from Folsom base to the era where they’d found the derelict and the scout ship. She never got to know any of the civilians or the soldiers, but she did know what it felt like to believe you’d never see home again.
Aiyana came out of Gordon’s tent and rejoined the others. “He’s asleep. He seems to be in pretty bad shape.”
“Living for ten years in this environment? Small wonder.”
“I know Travis. People from our century and the western nations don’t know how to live like this, especially if just suddenly thrust into it.
“Anyway, I think he’s got several fractures that didn’t heal very well. He has a slight fever. He’s a lot thinner than I remember him, so I bet nutrition is a problem.
“Gordon, we have to find Byrd and the rest. They’d been hoping for retrieval for a long time and then lost that hope. Now we’re here.”
“We can send them back during the next open window, assuming they’re nearby, Aiyana.”
“Assuming they all want to go, Gordon. You heard what Lynn said. Some may want to stay with their families.”
“We can’t let them contaminate the timeline anymore than they already have, Ross.”
“It wasn’t their fault.”
“It doesn’t matter, Aiyana. We have to get them out of this place as soon as possible and then we have another job. We still need to get into the Forerunner base. I think it might hold some of the answers we’ve been looking for.”
The Prologue to this book, the third in a series of homage pieces based on Andre Norton’s (Alice Mary Norton’s) “Time Traders” series is Prologue: The Defiant Agents (note that the URL still indicates its original title). That prologue contains links to the chapters of the previous book “Galactic Derelict”.
The adventure continues.
The next chapter is Tomorrow or Yesterday?