Two days before he took his first trip through the time gate, Major John Kelgarries had a hush-hush meeting at Operation Retrograde with Antoine R. Barnes, Head of the Temporal Mechanics division, the last word in temporal field operations and perhaps the one person in the operation who actually understood the Forerunner time map.
It was late. Just about everyone was asleep at the arctic base except those personnel on night duty. They were in a small conference room. Barnes had cut the surveillance feeds. This was strictly off the record.
“That’s the long and the short of it, Major. Assuming your mission to bring back the survivors is successful, I can only predict to a 48% accuracy how our history and our present will be changed.”
“You mean I could go back, bring Byrd and his people through the gate, return to the present and discover that I’d never been born, or that I’d joined the goddamn American Ballet Theatre.”
“Something like that, although we can’t be sure the changes would be so personal. They may be more like who is the President, what wars did and didn’t happen, did the Americans, Nazis, or Russians first invent the A-bomb.”
“So let’s say we prevent climate change but screw ourselves out of being a world power. How the hell would we know? All of our memories would be wiped out in an instant.”
“Not really, Major.” Barnes had been the President of MIT before being recruited into the Operation. Nobel prize in physics at the age of 21 for his breakthrough in the development of cheap, portable fusion reactors, he had been on the group that developed the American time gates based on the Russian design (based on Forerunner technology).
When Ashe and his team came back from Europa with the Blue Forerunner time map, he had an almost instinctive grasp of its meaning, even beyond the four time travelers who had gained their information directly from the Orange Forerunner’s mind link. Everyone had been so focused on correcting history and reversing the changes in the timeline, that only Dr. Barnes had considered whether this was really a good idea. After all, who is to say which timeline is more valid?
“Anyplace with an active time gate will offer the personnel in its vicinity protection against the time changes. Basically, if you are near a gate and changes occur in the timeline, you will still retain your memories of the prior history.”
“So let’s say that we change the timeline. If we were near a time gate, we’d remember that Ben Carson is President of the United States, but then if we turned on the news, we could find out that Hillary Clinton is President. Is that it?”
“President Carson said that correcting the timeline and stopping climate change takes top priority over all other concerns, Doctor. Does he really understand what that means to the nation, to him personally?”
“I don’t think many of the people who are aware of the current situation can fully grasp the ramifications, but he has the basics of it.”
“Okay, so who gets to remember what changed? The team at the Canyon of the Moon, both in the present and in the past certainly will. I will.”
“Major, I recommend powering up the main gate here at Headquarters. It would be in our best interests and in the interests of national security if we remember how it was and what changed. If we don’t, we may not be able to direct any further beneficial changes in time.”
“I agree, Dr. Barnes. However, let’s keep our teams small. Need to know basis only. Lock out everyone else besides those of us who are directly affected. Hell, if news about what we’re doing got out even to our own intelligence community…”
“All hell would break loose, I believe is the customary expression for such eventualities.”
“Shit, if the Soviets ever found out…”
That’s what I’m worried about, Major. What if they already have?
Kelgarries only had time to order that the gate at the arctic facility be activated at a low level of emission, not enough to form a temporal link to another era, but according to Barnes, enough to protect the base from changes in the timeline.
That wouldn’t protect the Nevada facility where the ship and the alien corpses were being investigated. They didn’t have a gate, but that couldn’t be helped. The original idea of having multiple bases was to avoid a single point of failure. If headquarters were the only American time base and someone took it out, that would be it. However now, having multiple bases meant having multiple locations to protect from time changes.
Too late for any of that now. He was in the air on his way back to Arizona. He had to bring Byrd and his people home. There’d be time later to sort out the consequences, or at least he hoped.
Gordon Ashe was glad that everyone else jumped back to the present. He couldn’t afford to have his team distracted by Byrd and his people, or Kelgarries, or the soldiers, or the medical teams. This was their show now.
He’d sent Murdock and Fox out again to scout for any signs of human life.
Murdock encountered a herd of Saiga antelope but they were moving to the southwest. It was likely that the Dire Wolf got his meal from one of them, but Ross wouldn’t know that until he compared notes with Fox later on.
Murdock and Fox stood on the ridge overlooking the shallow canyon. “That’s it, Gordon. We’ve got the all clear, over.” Ross released the send button on his throat mike.
“Fine, Ross. You and Travis take positions near the canyon entrance. I don’t want any surprises, over.”
“Roger that, Gordon. We’ll be here keeping an eye open while you and the rest of the team have all the fun, over.”
“I’ll keep you posted if we start having any fun, Ross. Out.”
Ashe, Zheutlin, Huỳnh, and Romanovich stood in front of the section of the rock face near the entrance of the canyon containing to what the naked eye was an invisible alien glyph.
“It’s right here, Gordon.” Lynn had her “tricorder” in front of her scanning the precise area where Ashe would have to insert his key. Vasnev was looking over her shoulder.
“Ingenious device, Lynn. Pity we didn’t have one back in Britain.”
The young technician turned her head and looked back at the Russian. “Do you mind?”
“Sorry. My mistake.” Vasnev backed away a few feet.
“Here’s the key, Lynn. You’d better insert it since I can’t see the ‘lock’.”
“No problem, Gordon.”
Huỳnh used her scanning device to guide her hand to the exact insertion point. The key went in effortlessly.
There was a whirring noise, what sounded like a large lock being disengaged, and then a section of the rock face pulled back and swung inward to the left.
“Open Sesame,” Romanovich declared dramatically.
“I thought you were the one who didn’t want to meet any Blues. You seem awfully cheerful under the circumstances.”
“Just making light of a serious situation, my dear Aiyana. I find it helps when under duress.”
“Well, you’re not wrong,” the linguist muttered under her breath.
Ashe ignored the exchange between his team and reached for the flashlight on his belt. Before he would use it, the lights came on. They were looking into what could have been an oval-shaped elevator or passenger car of a very strange train.
“I think we’re going to be taken for a ride. Anyone have reservations?”
“Of course, Gordon. However, I didn’t get to be a Major in the Soviet Army by shunning danger.”
“Let’s do it, Gordon. This is why we’re here.” Aiyana sounded impatient so Gordon walked forward down the short corridor and through the opening in the apparent vehicle. Zheutlin and Romanovich followed while Huỳnh brought up the rear. She did have reservations, but as Aiyana said, this is why they were here. She hoped they wouldn’t find a bunch of dead Blues, but then again, she didn’t want to find any live ones, either.
Their were seats organized around the ring of the oval and the four sat down. Abruptly, the doors closed as did the door to the outside world. There was still dim lighting, but instead of the elevator car or whatever it was going down, it shot like a bullet back further into a tunnel penetrating the rock face. Fortunately, like the seats of their scout ship, the car seats were equipped with the same red gel which absorbed the inertia.
“Good thing we sat down,” Aiyana quipped.
After a few seconds, the car stopped and then rapidly moved downward. Seconds later, they came to a halt and the car’s door opened onto the unbelievable. It was the chamber they had materialized in during their last trip through time, but totally without Forerunner occupants, living or dead.
And this time, they had more than a few seconds to look around.
“Amazing, there must be…two, three…four spacecraft docking bays, two of them occupied with ships.”
“Thinking of taking one home, Vasnev?”
“Are you offering, Gordon?”
“Hardly.” Like the rest of his team, Ashe was distracted by looking around the interior of the Forerunner base.
It was laid out in a square with one large docking bay at each of the corners. The bays could be seen through a large pane of transparent material everyone was pretty sure wasn’t ordinary glass.
There were a number of large cube or cube-like objects roughly surrounding the center of the room. It could have been the size of an auditorium, and the cubes were the size of perhaps anything from a small den to a large family room. Each cube had a symbol in the Forerunner language on them. It was the written language they’d been taught by the Orange, the same that labeled the different controls of their scout ship.
That meant Ashe, Zheutlin, and Huỳnh could read it but Romanovich could not.
“That one says something like ‘infirmary’ or ‘hospital.’ Let’s have a look.” Aiyana led the way. There were doorways but no doors. “Only five tables or beds filled with red gel.” Lynn walked over to one. It looked exactly like the bed she slept in aboard their scout craft.
“Must be the limit of their medical technology,” Vasnev commented.
“Maybe this is all they need. One solution for every illness or injury.”
“Not necessarily, Aiyana. This may be the equivalent of a field hospital, equipped only for emergencies. At their home planet or even at larger bases, they might have more varied treatments available.”
“I don’t know about that, Gordon. At the Forerunner base we had discovered in Sweden’s Ice Age, which was much larger than this. These sorts of devices were the only things we found. Nothing else even vaguely resembling other medical treatments.”
“Yes, Vasnev. Ross told me how you damaged a Forerunner lifeboat taking out one of the cradles.”
“That happened totally against my orders, Gordon. The young Lieutenant who ordered the procedure earned a one-way posting to a Gulag in Siberia…in the present, of course.”
They found that one cube nearby was living quarters, more beds, tables and chairs, along with the microwave-like devices that dispensed food bars. “Doesn’t seem like they have much variety. This is the same sort of equipment we had aboard ship.”
“They’re humanoid, not human, Lynn. Variety and distraction might not be part of their psychological makeup.”
“That’s what we need on the team, Aiyana. Someone who can study what the Blues must have thought like.”
“I can attest to their thoughts, Lynn. After all, I had a Blue inside my head, just as Ross did. They were very angry when they invaded the Soviet base. The psychic connection was extremely painful.”
One cube contained what could have been a combination electrical and machine shop and two more contained objects and devices that no one could even chance a guess at, in spite of the knowledge imparted to them by the alien Orange.
However, the center of the base contained the greatest mystery.
There were seats forming a circle around a depression in the floor. The depression was also circular. Each seat had a small control console in front of it.
“If I’m reading the language right, this is some sort of projector.”
“Right, Aiyana. Judging by the configuration of these controls, each Forerunner could call up a holographic projection in front of them.” Lynn was reading the language on the consoles as well, but her technical knowledge as an engineer told her more.
“For meetings, briefings perhaps?”
“Maybe, Vasnev. Or maybe this is the distraction Lynn had been looking for. The equivalent of watching TV or going to the movies.”
“There’s one way to find out. Think you can operate it, Lynn.”
“Let’s give it a try, Gordon.” Lynn Huỳnh took the seat nearest her and started studying the controls. “I think this…yes.” She started manipulating small panels and buttons. Abruptly, a large sphere of light appeared above the depression accompanied by a crackling noise like static.
“I don’t think you have the right channel, Lynn.” Romanovich chuckled at his own joke. “Try another one. Maybe we’ll pick up a sports broadcast.” He sat in the chair next to her’s. “Now if I only had popcorn.”
Gordon and Aiyana continued to stand, fascinated by the image forming in front of them.
“Yes…I think I’ve got it.” The sphere became what looked like a bubble of water. “We’re seeing underwater.”
“But is it here on Earth or someplace else, Lynn?”
“I can’t tell, Gordon. Give me a little time to work with this.”
“Another question to ask is what we are seeing in real time or a recording?”
“I don’t know Vasnev, but look. There’s something alive in the water.” Aiyana watched in awe as the object moved into focus.
“It is alive, but not life as we know it?”
“An alien ocean, Gordon? A Forerunner world?”
“It could well be, Aiyana. This could be the first alien life we’ve seen outside of the Blue and Orange Forerunners.”
“Wait. I should record this.” Lynn took out her scanning device and began recording the holographic image.
“It’s four limbed, the eyes are somewhat like that of a dolphin’s, but those are definitely gills on the throat, so it can’t be a sea mammal.”
“Call me a fool, Gordon. But does that creature look at all familiar?”
“You mean like what a Forerunner would look like if it were more primitive and lived underwater? Maybe. What are you suggesting, Vasnev?”
“I’m not sure yet. Maybe the resemblance is because they both evolved in the same ocean.”
“I’m pretty sure I don’t resemble a walrus or a whale just because our distant ancestors evolved in the same oceans as they did.”
“But you would make such an attractive walrus, my dear Aiyana.”
“You are impossible, Vasnev.”
“Knock it off, you two. Look. More of those creatures are approaching.”
“Gordon, they’re looking right at us. I think they can see us.”
“You mean this isn’t a projection, Lynn?”
“We assumed it was, but what if it’s a communications device?”
“Not like any we’ve found on any Forerunner ship.”
“Nor like anything we found in our base in Sweden, Aiyana. If it’s real time, then the ocean must be on Earth.”
“Hear that? They’re vocalizing. Wait a minute. There’s a pattern.” The linguist was listening intently.
“Aiyana. A language? They’re intelligent?”
“Maybe like a dolphin is intelligent but who knows?”
“I’m recording all of this so we can have it analyzed when we get back to base. Hold on. The image is fluctuating.”
The blue bubble, the ocean scene scattered, distorted, turned to static, and then reformed. They were now facing a Blue Forerunner. It was speaking excitedly in crackles, clicks, and squeals.
“I don’t know what happened, but it looks angry.”
“You’ve got that right, Gordon.”
“Aiyana. The background. Behind the Forerunner.”
“I see it, Lynn.”
“Europa. This is happening in real time on Europa. But how is that possible? Jupiter is over forty light minutes away, but there’s no delay in the Forerunner’s response to us. Gordon, we’ve got to get out of here.” The young technical engineer looked up at the team leader with desperation written on her features.
“I agree with Lynn, Gordon.” Romanovich had lost the appearance of a sense of humor. “The last time we accidentally contacted a Blue Forerunner in such a manner, the consequences were fatal.”
“Lynn, shut down the communicator. We’ve left monitoring devices behind which will hopefully tell us of any subsequent arrival by the Blues.”
“Gordon, we’ll have to open a time portal to read their transmissions.”
“Can’t be helped, Aiyana. We can’t risk staying here, but I want to know what happens after we leave.”
“Gordon, I can’t break the connection.”
“Never mind, Lynn. Everyone, let’s get out of here.”
Vasnev and Lynn stood and followed their teammates back toward the elevator car.
“We’re overdue to contact Ross and Travis.” Gordon keyed the transmission button on his throat mike. “Ashe to Murdock. Come in Murdock, over.”
He let go of the key and got nothing but static. He tried twice more with the same results.
“We are probably too far underground, Gordon.”
“Maybe, Vasnev. Or else something is blocking the signal.”
“I hope that’s all it is, Gordon. We left them in one of the most hostile environments in history.”
“We’ll find out in a few minutes, Aiyana. Everyone, get in. The four sat down and the car automatically closed its doors and started moving upward, reversing the course they took to get into the base.
On the surface, Murdock and Fox were standing guard, but in spite of Zheutlin’s fears, they had encountered nothing but boredom.
“Rock face is opening, Ross.”
“About time. Their check in call was overdue.”
“They were probably under tons of rock. I doubt if a radio signal could get through.”
“They’re leaving in a hurry. Let’s go see what happened.”
Murdock’s radio crackled to life. “Ashe to Murdock. Come in, over.”
“Ross here, Gordon. We’re coming to you. What’s the problem, over?”
“We made live contact with a Blue Forerunner at their Europa base. We need to get back to the present right now, over.”
“Acknowledged. Over and out.”
The six approached the area where they knew the temporal field was supposed to be.
“We’re lucky. The gate’s next scheduled activation is in just a few minutes.”
“We could stay, Gordon. It would take days for the Blues to get here from Europa or, if Vasnev’s experience any example, they might not show up for weeks.”
“I’m taking no chances, Aiyana. If Kelgarries wants to send back soldiers, he can, but we’re not equipped to handle an assault.”
“Do you think this is before or after we came through?”
“What do you mean, Lynn?”
“I mean Gordon, do you think our current jump back happened after the other, when we stepped through the modified gate? That gate gave us a false reading on where it would materialize us. What if the time reading was off, too?”
“You mean do the Blues remember us as trying to kill them, even inadvertently? If they do, then we might be in a lot more trouble than even the Soviets were when their base was destroyed.”
“Gate’s set to open in fifteen seconds.” Travis was looking at his wrist watch and then up at where the field would appear.
“Ten seconds…five…okay and…what?”
“The field. Where is it?” Ross keyed his throat mike. “Murdock to Folsom Base. Come in, over?”
“The temporal field. It’s basically invisible, but the energy surge should have been audible when it formed.” Lynn took out her scanner. “I’m not reading it.
“Forty seconds late…forty-five…”
“Wait, I’m getting something.” Lynn was watching the readings shift on her scanner as she read temporal energy.
They heard the field forming two meters in front of them.
“Let’s go home.”
“Wait, Lynn.” Gordon grabbed her shoulder to stop her and then he keyed his mike.
“Ashe to Folsom Base. Come in Folsom, over.”
“This is Kelgarries, Ashe. What’s your status, over?”
“I just wanted to make sure of the connection. You’re a minute late activating the field.”
“What? No we’re not. What is your status? Over.”
“We’re ready to come home, Major.”
“Uh…okay, Gordon. We’re ready on this end.”
The six time agents simultaneously walked through the temporal field and emerged through the gate on the other side. The first thing Gordon noticed about Kelgarries, who was there to greet them, was that his shoulder brass indicated he was now a full bird Colonel.
“Sudden promotion, John?”
“Happened over a year ago, Gordon. A lot has changed while you’ve been away.”
The Colonel stepped over to Romanovich. “I have some bad news for you, Major.”
“The time change.”
“That’s right. When Byrd and the rest of them stepped through to the present, history changed just as we thought it would, but we weren’t sure just how much would be different. We were protected here because of the active time gate, but…”
“Am I dead?”
“No, but the Soviet Union no longer exists. Our records tell us you’re still a Major, but in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”
“I’m glad to still be working for someone.”
“What else, John?”
“We need to talk Gordon. The six of you are returning to a world you may not know very well. Our plan is working, but if our mission is even partially successful, we’ll all become strangers in time, aliens on our own world.”
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.
Oh, I got the title for this chapter from David Bowie’s song Changes.