Major John Kelgarres had been the military commander of Operation Retrograde for over five years but in all that time, he’d never gone through a gate. Not until today.
“Are you sure your presence is really required John. After all, we know our job.”
“It’s not you Gordon. I’m Walter Byrd’s C.O. I’m responsible for the safety of the men and women under my command. Byrd’s been out of touch for a long time. He and his people have been stuck tens of thousands of years in the past. They thought we gave up on them, they thought they were alone, cut off. If there’s any doubt he’ll order his team to come home, I’m here to see otherwise.”
“I don’t think it’s that simple, John. Byrd has led his people here for ten years. From what Louis tells me, they depend on him, trust him implicitly and will obey him without hesitation.”
“Once he obeyed me without hesitation.”
“From his point of view, that was a decade ago, a decade he and the others have had to survive under the most primitive conditions, trapped in a past they could barely understand, that is, until they became a part of it.”
“You say Louis promised he’d return with Byrd in three days.”
“And it’s been five. This is an untamed world, John. A lot of things could have delayed them. A lot of things could have killed them.”
“We’d know if you had let me send drones.”
“Louis said no surveillance. He may not be the soldier you once knew, but he’s still a soldier…or a tribal leader if you like. He didn’t survive here by being trusting, he did so by being cautious, even paranoid most likely.”
“The Operation’s psychologists have the same opinion, Gordon.
“Hullo!” At the far end of the canyon, three figures approaching. One was definitely Louis. They had to presume one was Byrd, but until the third got closer, he wouldn’t be recognizable, not after living for ten years at the end of the last Ice Age among the Folsom men of what would be the southwestern portion of the United States.
Finally, the trio stopped about four meters from the time travelers.
“Hello, Byrd. Glad you remember me.”
“Why here? Now?”
“Me or the team’s visit?”
“Louis explained the second.”
Ashe noticed that Byrd seemed a lot more organized and verbal than their first encounter with Aramazd, but then he’s had time to prepare. Probably practiced his English to get ready for the meeting.
“Lieutenant, we need you and your people to come in. I was told it might not be as easy as all that.”
“Come in from the cold, or rather the Ice Age?” Byrd seemed to have grown a sense of humor. Murdock remembered him as never cracking a smile. Strange that such hardship might have actually lightened the Lieutenant up a little.
“Yes, Lt. Byrd. I’m giving you an order. I need your team to stand down and return through the gate.”
“We have wives, husbands, children. We are a tribe.”
“I assume you’ve informed them of the situation.”
“Some don’t believe. Some think it’s a trick. Some said they’d come. Others won’t.”
“Think of your duty, Lieutenant, not just to the United States Army, but to the mission of the Operation. We have a responsibility to protect time. The eggheads say if you come back we have a chance we can fix a lot of broken history.”
Lt. Byrd, called “Avi” in this time and place, wasn’t a subordinate addressing a superior. It looked and sounded like two tribal chiefs assessing each other, trying to tell if this was a time of defiance or compliance.
“Broken…history. Our history was broken, Major. I did my best, held my people together. We survived. Never thought to see you again.”
“I’m here, Byrd. We’re ready to extract you and your children. However, we can’t let people born before your arrival, your husbands and wives, come forward. They’d be hopelessly lost in the 21st century.”
“They can be retrained. Hell, the oldest can’t be more than eight or nine. We’ll settle you in a small, isolated colony. Introduce the modern world in small steps.”
Lynn thought if she were in Byrd’s shoes, she’d jump at the chance to go home, but she was also the one who realized how hard it would be to leave their loved ones behind, even in this harsh and foreboding world.
“My tribe. My people. One day’s walk away.”
“That means you’ve accepted our offer?”
“They’re closer so I can go back. Tell them what we spoke, and about the choice.”
“Be careful, Byrd. It’s not just about whether some want to come home and some want to stay. The lives of unborn billions of human beings and the fate of the planet itself rides on exactly what you and your people do next.”
What Kelgarries wasn’t prepared to mention but what Byrd had probably guessed is if the Lieutenant didn’t obey orders to the letter, an Army strike force would come through the gate and exterminate the tribe to the last man, woman, and child. It would be a massacre worthy of the worst atrocities the U.S. military had ever committed against indigenous peoples, and doubly tragic because they’d be murdering U.S. citizens in cold blood.
The President made it clear that repairing the timeline had unconditional priority. The time gate specialists had days to go over the time map and their calculations, and they confirmed that it was vital for every living person on Byrd’s team plus any of their children must return to the future.
“Okay, Lynn. What was so important that you have to see me alone?”
Lynn Huỳnh had approached Gordon after nightfall and asked to meet with him outside the camp privately. Byrd, Aramazd, and the third man, a Private who used to be called Martin North, left to return to their people with Kelgarries’s proposal. They expected a reply in one or two days. Kelgarries took no chances and ordered drones outfitted with infrared, against what he knew were Byrd’s wishes, to track their party and then the tribe’s movements. No one else knew about the strike team option, but Kelgarries would order them through the gate if it looked like the tribe were moving away from their position.
“I found a way in…into the Forerunner base.”
“Good work, Lynn. Why all the cloak and dagger.”
“I don’t trust the Russian. He may act all buddy-buddy and tell a good joke, but I felt better sharing this with you in private.”
“Alright. We’ll have to tell the others eventually, but for now, what do you have?”
There’s a…well sort of back door if you want to call it that. Probably a side door is a better metaphor, just toward the canyon entrance. I ran a spectral analysis of the whole cliff face and I discovered a glyph similar to the one you found outside that Cache you visited in Bronze Age Britain.”
“The one that Romanovich and his men failed to find. You’re right. This one was sitting right under his nose and he didn’t detect it either. Of course, why should he? Vasnev realizes that he’ll know what the team knows, so even if he’s up to no good, all he has to do is wait.”
“One of the pieces of equipment you have is a Blue Forerunner key.”
“So all I have to do is use it at the glyph site and the base will open for us.”
“When do you want to go in, Gordon?”
“We’ll wait until the business with Byrd’s people is concluded. I want to be able to focus 100% of our attention on exploring the base, not worrying about what the Lieutenant might or might not do.”
“It’s really not their fault, Gordon. I mean, can you imagine…?”
“Actually I can, a little bit anyway. It’s a possibility any time agent faces, being permanently stranded in the past.”
“Has anyone…I mean, has it ever happened?”
“There have been disappearances, very few, but it happens. All the evidence in each case points to the agents dying. So far, there’s no information on our Forerunner time map that suggests they survived, or if they did, that they had any meaningful impact on the timeline.”
“And now Byrd’s people. It must have been horrible, especially because it happened without warning. No training. No mission preparation. Just ‘poof’ and they’re gone.”
“I know. Anyway, let’s get back to camp before the rest start wondering.”
The man who had once been Lt. Walter Byrd stood at the head of what looked like a small group of Folsom hunters and warriors. Behind them were women and children. It had been four days since Kelgarries had last seen Byrd.
“Are you and your party prepared to return through the gate, Lieutenant?”
Given the extraordinary circumstances, the Major had ordered the gate to be left on 24 hours a day. No telling when they’d be able to gather Byrd’s party together for retrieval or, failing that, have to order the strike team to come through and pursue them.
“Yes. Major, it was hard. Four women, one man. They have to stay. They came from other tribes and clans. The women wept at the loss of their children and mates, their companions, their people. The man was given the women as his own. He will go to the [Byrd said a word no one understood] tribe. He will be accepted. He is a good hunter.”
“And a good husband and father.” It was a woman’s voice from the back. Travis looked. She held a baby in her arms and a little boy no more than four was holding her free hand.
“We will come. I remember that I am Lieutenant. My men obey my orders. I obey yours, Major. We do our duty.”
Kelgarries was silently thanking God he wouldn’t have to give the kill order. “Stand by, Lieutenant. We’ll have medical check your party out. You’ll need inoculations, particularly your children, plus we need to know of any special treatment needs you all will require.” The Major was assured it was unlikely that any of Byrd’s people would bring a dangerous disease with them into the future, but it wasn’t impossible either. He had to be sure.
“Lieutenant, would you step forward and walk with me for a minute?”
Byrd turned to the man on his right, probably one of the officers or non-comms who’d gone through with the rest, but the Major didn’t recognize him, spoke several words in another language and then walked forward. He was still carrying his spear, all the men were. Kelgarries thought about having them disarm, but that might cause more trouble than it was worth. Once they were through to the other side, saw they really were back in the 21st century, they’d put down their spears and stone knives soon enough.
When the two were relatively alone, Kelgarries asked, “What did you tell them, that man and the four women? What did you tell the children?”
“Do you care, Major?”
“As a matter of fact, I damn well do care, Lieutenant. I’ve got a wife, four adult children and three grandchildren. I sure as hell do care.”
“The man, women, I tell them my great chief brought our tribe. Found us. Takes us to our place, territory. Taboo to bring people from the south but children must go.”
“They bought it?”
This is a hard land, Major. Much sacrifice. We are fiercely loyal but often we have to leave people behind. I lost half my personnel in the last ten years. Heidi Watson, time gate tech, my first wife died six years ago. Her daughter is with us. Two of the four women we leave behind were my wives. I have four strong sons and a daughter from them. Yes, they bought it. There is so much loss. This is only a little more.”
Same story. We go to our tribe. Our tribe is different. They will see strange things. They are tribe, I am chief. They listen and will do.”
“Well, we’ll sedate them for their trip through the gate. By the time they wake up, you’ll all be in the resettlement colony. It’ll look like a Folsom environment, but it’s actually a military compound not too far from here. They’re all young and we have the finest teachers and psychologists in the world on the case. I think they’ll all make it. I think all of you will make it.”
Kelgarries had played enough poker to figure he’d made a pretty good bluff. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to believe everything would turn out right for the adults and children who were Byrd’s tribe, but people are complicated. Once damaged, they usually didn’t get all the way “undamaged”. Byrd probably would never return to active duty, but as far as the Major was concerned, he was a hero in every sense of the word and deserved all the medals the goddamned Army had to give.
The children. God in Heaven, the children. The little babies would probably adjust, especially if exposed to their new time frame as soon as possible, but anyone older than a toddler…well, the Major hoped the experts were a hell of a lot smarter than he was.
Major Vasnev Romanovich had to be extremely careful. He was allowed to record the team’s activities for the purposes of reporting back to his people, as per the deal made between the Soviet and U.S. governments, but he couldn’t let anyone find out exactly why he was doing it. On the contrary to what he had told Aiyana Zheutlin, he actually enjoyed political intrigue, the strategy, the game, move and counter move. It was all very exciting, like the war games he played with his father as a child. He loved using the exquisitely painted metal figures representing his army, deploying them across the board, reliving old historic campaigns and creating a few new ones of their own.
Of course Father always won. A decorated General from a proud military family. Grandfather had stood against the Nazis at Stalingrad. In their time, Grandfather and then Father had their moments of glory but finally the glory had faded. Now it was Vasnev’s turn.
Initially, Travis Fox and Ross Murdock hadn’t liked each other very much, but then they discovered they had a lot in common. Both came to the project reluctantly, but now it was in their blood. They both liked the adventure, learning new ways and new cultures, or rather old ones, and Travis would have given his eye teeth to have been on board the Forerunner ship to travel to Ceres and Europa.
“Do you think Romanovich has turned over a new leaf, that he’s ready to defect?”
That’s what my memories tell me, Travis.”
“But that was before. He didn’t defect and time has passed. Maybe that window of opportunity has closed.”
“Which is why we keep our eyes on him.”
“He’s not stupid. He knows we’re watching.”
“Sure he does. But he’s arrogant and he likes a challenge. If he’s playing a double-agent, he’ll want to see how much he can get away with undetected. He’ll push the envelope and then we’ll have him.”
Lynn tried to talk with the children, but they were terrified of her. She didn’t look like anyone in their world, none of this “tribe” did. The mothers and fathers comforted the children, told them it would be all right and that the strangers were their guides into a new world. Lynn was good with her nephews and nieces, she really liked kids and wanted a family of her own someday, but it was going to be a long road for these little ones.
The woman who called out from the back. She was letting the doctors examine her two children. Lynn was standing nearby. The primitive woman said, “I’m Corporal Beverly Smith.” Lynn looked at the Army Corporal and saw a Folsom woman who looked nearly twice the age of 21-year-old soldier who had traveled back in time ten years ago.
“I was just trying to say ‘hi’ to your little boy.”
“He’s terrified. All of this…” Smith waved her hand around to indicate the camp which, to Folsom people, would have looked as if it came from another world.
“They’ll be taken care of, you all will.”
“That’s what they told me when I volunteered for the Operation. They never said anything about this. I was never supposed to go through the gate. Just provide routine security. And now…and now…”
Lynn felt a hand on her shoulder.
“It’ll take time. We can’t do much for them here and now.”
The young technician turned to see her friend Aiyana. “It still hurts to see them like this, especially the kids.”
“Can you imagine what it’s like for them?”
“That’s the terrible part, Aiyana. I think I can.”
Kelgarries brought up the rear. He wanted to make sure every single person who was supposed to return home actually returned. Blair had come through the gate and led them in. Seeing Byrd and the rest, well…for an instant her shell cracked and the Major almost saw the Captain start to tear up. Then she did her duty and led the Lieutenant and his team through the gate.
The children were all asleep or nearly so by that time, so they’d have no memory. The Major turned to Ashe before going through. “It’s your show now, Gordon. Let me know what you find.”
“You let me know what you find. Once those people returned to the present, the time map should have shifted telling us how much of the timeline was restored. We’ll want details, John.”
“You’ll have them, Gordon. Just do your job. I promise that we’ll do ours.”
Major John Kelgarries turned back and walked through the temporal field leading to the future.
Gordon Ashe took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then he turned to face his team. “Now we finish the mission. We have a way into the Forerunner base. Here’s what we do next.”
Previous “chapters” in this book are:
This is part of my homage to the works of Andre Norton (Alice Mary Norton) which include The Time Traders, Galactic Derelict, and now The Defiant Agents. At this point, there’s no resemblance in my tales to Norton’s original story lines beyond the existence of some of the characters. Hopefully, she’d like how I’ve interpreted her vision.
The next chapter is Turn and Face the Change.