True to his word, Major Vasnev Romanovich of the Russian Ground Forces did not get drunk until well after the debriefing of the Atlantis mission at Project Retrograde’s Arctic base. When Romanovich had been assigned to Retrograde, it had been called an “Operation” and he had been a Major of the Soviet Armed Forces. However, when reality was changed after an unfortunate Time Storm, initiated when Time Gate Technician Louis Aramazd and his team activated the gate in close proximity to a live Forerunner power source, the world he returned to was not the same as the one he left.
U.S. Army Lieutenant Walter Byrd was in operational command of the Folsom time base in Arizona when the Time Storm hit, and all of his people were instantly transported back over 14,000 years in time. Ashe and his team, of which Vasnev was now a member, rescued them, but in returning the survivors and their children to the present after ten years in exile, they created a new timeline, one in which the Soviet Union fell in the late 1980s.
Either way, Romanovich was the Russian liaison to the Retrograde Project and worked as an equal member of Dr. Gordon Ashe’s team of time agents attempting to minimize or eliminate the results of the Time Storm and most importantly, to prevent or reverse the effects of climate change that will likely cause human extinction in a mere half century.
Vasnev woke up in his downtown Washington D.C. hotel room with a roaring hangover. It was to be expected. At least the young lady he had spent the night with had the good sense to vacate his bed before he woke up. The Russian enjoyed his pleasures, mainly because as a soldier, he never knew which one would be his last.
However as a soldier, he put duty before entertainment. His first appointment two days ago, immediately after flying into Dulles, was to have a covert meeting with KGB or rather, Russian Federal Security agent Petrov Yeshevsky. In the previous timeline, Yeshevsky had been the Soviet diplomat who got him into this mess in the first place. Now he was a spy in the Russian diplomatic corps, though no one was fooled by his rather transparent cover. His true identity being obvious was deliberate, a tool to strike fear into any diplomat or aide who considered defection to the West or cooperation with American security agencies.
Romanovich didn’t trust Yeshevsky any more than Yeshevsky trusted Romanovich, which was why the former had an informant relaying all of the Security agent’s communications to the Army officer. It paid off. Romanovich discovered there was a covert agent working inside of Retrograde, a high-ranking official. It was Dr. Edward Nieves, head of the project’s medical division and among his other duties, the person who was supervising the examination of the Forerunner corpses at a secret airbase in Nevada.
Now all Vasnev had to decide was whether to report this information to Kelgarries or to blackmail Nieves into keeping it quiet.
Travis Fox slipped out of bed trying hard now to disturb his wife Cassie. They had both woken up early and made love before dawn assured their four children were fast asleep. It was difficult to get a lot of privacy with four little ones, all age six and under, running around.
After using the bathroom, he started the coffee, then went to peek in on the kids. Twins Cameron and Susie were barely two and so still shared a room, through they’d just graduated from cribs to beds. He’d probably have to get them their own bedrooms fairly soon. They looked like angels when sleeping, so peaceful and serene. While Cameron was pretty calm for a toddler, Susie put new emphasis on the term “terrible” as in “terrible twos”. She was fearless like her Father, a risk taker, and she often had the bumps and bruises to prove it.
Six-year old Boyd and his four-year old brother Warren shared another room. Boyd was now a “big boy” because he’d started first grade, with Warren following him around wanting to do everything big brother was doing.
“God, I love you so much,” he whispered as he closed the door to their bedroom.
When he walked back to the kitchen to get his first cup of coffee, Cassie was already there pouring a cup. She handed it to him and then poured herself one.
His Uncle Wendell, who’d been running the Double-A Ranch during Travis’s adventures in time, had his own small cottage on the other side of the stables. He was probably already up, had eaten breakfast, and was out taking care of the cattle with the hands. His uncle was nearly sixty and could outwork men half his age.
Chano. His old grandfather. He was still dead in this timeline. Travis missed him, missed his stories of the old ways of their people, the Apache.
Wendell, for an elder, embraced the modern path, but Travis wanted to keep the traditions for the sake of Chano and as a heritage for his children. How could he do that if he were running up and down the corridors of time with Gordon, Ross, Aiyana, Lynn, and the ever annoying Russian Vasnev?
“How long are you staying this time, Travis?”
“Cass, do we have to start out the day by arguing?
He’d been home over a month but last night Kelgarries called saying they were putting together another mission. It was still in the planning stages, but he could be recalled to the Project at any time. Cassie was less than pleased.
He had been staring out the kitchen window toward the hills, those same hills he’d ridden into a lifetime ago when he met Ashe again for the first time in years and stumbled into a position on his team.
Now he turned back to his wife. She was in that ratty pink terry cloth robe she loved so much. She had “bed hair.” She looked tired, but that just meant she was worried. He sat down at the kitchen table next to her.
“I’m not arguing, Travis. I’m concerned. I need a full-time husband and our children need a full-time Dad. I thought you loved running the Double-A. Are you going to let Wendell do it for the rest of our lives?”
“Cassie, plenty of people travel for business.”
“But they don’t travel in time, Travis.” She whispered that last sentence, not wanting the children to overhear.
“Really, it’s okay.”
“You were almost killed!”
She was remembering how he’d impulsively jumped through the time gate with Lt. Byrd and another man to rescue a team of wounded soldiers who would otherwise have died in the Folsom age. Travis returned to the present, but not before taking a Folsom spear in the back. Fortunately, it hit at an angle so while he ended up having to spend weeks in an Air Force hospital, under guard because of the secrecy of the Project, he was alive and now completely recovered.
“I was wounded and that was the only time. Yes, the missions are dangerous Cass, but we’re trying to save the planet. I want to save the world for our children and their children. None of the kids will make it to middle-age if we don’t succeed.”
“But why does it have to be you, Trav?”
Tears were streaming down her checks. She grabbed his hand and squeezed tight.
He stood, still holding her hand, gently pulled her out of her chair, and they embraced. He murmured in her ear, “I have to help save the world for the sake of our children, Cass. What could possibly be more important than that?”
“Staying home and raising them.”
“I know, Cassie. I know.”
He held her in his arms for a long time.
Ross Murdock, chief time agent under Gordon Ashe, and Lynn Huỳnh, one of the Project’s spacecraft and time gate technicians, were visiting Basecamp in Nevada, the supposedly abandoned military air field where Retrograde had been examining both the Orange Forerunner Scout Ship and the Forerunner corpses recovered by Ashe’s team.
“You see this little baby?” Vaughn Frederiks was the Lead Spacecraft Engineer examining the Forerunner ship and probably the closest thing to an expert on it second only to Murdock and Huỳnh. He was holding a metallic sphere about the size of a bowling ball, yet it appeared surprisingly light. “It seems to be some sort of probe. We found dozens of them in a bay on the underside of the ship, just behind the landing struts. We think they have the same drive as the overall ship.”
“You mean they can travel faster than light.”
“That’s the theory, Lynn. However, they won’t have to if we want to go back and remotely examine the Ceres and Europa bases.”
“Is that part of the plan?”
“That’s what I hear, Ross. The big boys at the NSA want to mine all the alien technology they can. A few weeks back, they had a dozen or so scientists and engineers crawling all over Citron accompanied by the people in the dark suits with the bulges in their jackets.
“They took a bunch of notes, pictures, and readings and then blew town back to D.C. My guess is they want to build one of their own.”
“Why not use this ship?”
“Wait, Lynn.” Ross turned to Vaughn. “You named the ship ‘Citron’?”
“Well, the team had to call it something and since it’s an ‘orange’ ship…” Frederiks was smiling like a teenager who told a joke only he thought was funny.
“So why not use this ship? It flies great and from the reports I’ve read, the power source is a fusion-based high energy plasma, so as long as their’s Hydrogen, it can keep on flying.” At first space travel terrified Lynn as much as time travel, but now she kind of missed it.
Her parents would be appalled, although a Vietnamese man marrying a Korean woman showed they weren’t strangers to taking risks themselves, since both cultures were deeply traditional. She was their only child and they’d raised her to stay close to home and to be reserved.
They valued education and so allowed her to go to university, but they never understood when she joined a “company” so secret, she couldn’t tell them where she was working or even give them a phone number for her office.
Now she was a space traveler and a time traveler. If mother knew, she would swoon.
“Best guess is that they don’t want to mess this ship up. She’ll stay safe here and they can build prototypes to test.”
“Yeah, Vaughn. And if they figure out how to mass produce these ships, and only the Americans have them and their advanced technology including weapons…”
“Hey, I stay out of politics. I’m just a glorified mechanic. How about I buy you two some lunch, then we can go over and visit the freak show?”
Buying lunch consisted of visiting Basecamp’s cafeteria, which was just like any other military “chow line” they’d ever eaten at, and the “freak show” was the laboratory where Dr. David Link and his team were continuing their detailed analysis of the Forerunner corpses.
Before leaving on vacation, Ashe shared with him one of Link’s confidential reports, one that wasn’t sent to the Project’s NSA oversight board. To say the least, it wasn’t what Ross expected.
A few days later, Ross and Lynn were taken by private jet to McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. From there, they flew commercial to L.A., Ross’s old hometown. They rented a car and drove up Highway One toward San Francisco. Lynn never saw this coming.
Ross was almost a decade older than she was. He was very intelligent with an almost a photographic memory. He could recall everything he read and he said the reason he never went to school was because it was boring. That and he could make a lot more money as a thief for hire. He was both brilliant and an adventurer, but he always had to have input, something exciting to do.
He gave up a life of crime at first because joining the Project was the only alternative to prison. Later he stayed because it was the greatest adventure he could ever imagine.
Was that what she was to him, just his next adventure?
Why was she attracted to Ross? Lynn watched him as he drove. Beyond was the Pacific Ocean, the brilliant reflection throwing his face into shadow. He put the top down, so the wind was ruffling his dark brown hair. She was still surprised at how he looked in sunglasses since they’d spent most of their time together in the past, and sunglasses weren’t part of their standard issue equipment.
Maybe he was her next adventure, another act of defiance. Lynn used to think all she wanted was to marry and have children and yes, to tinker with some advanced piece of machinery from time to time. Now she was beginning to believe that was what her parents wanted of her. What sort of destiny did she want for herself?
She wasn’t ready to love Ross Murdock, not yet. She was ready to spend time with him, time when they could be just another couple and not covert agents jumping through a temporal field into the past.
He was having another nightmare.
Lynn knew it was better not to try to wake Ross. The first time she did, she ended up getting knocked out of bed. He apologized and she knew it wasn’t his fault. The psychologists at the base said it was probably Post Traumatic Stress induced by multiple Forerunner telepathic contacts, two out of three being violent. They’d hopefully subside once Ross recovered whatever thoughts and memories the Forerunners put in his head.
Of anyone on Earth, Ross Murdock was the only human being to have such an intimate knowledge of the mind of the Forerunners. Would it make him more human or less?
Hours later, showered and dressed, Ross and Lynn walked down the stairs of a charming Bed and Breakfast Inn in Napa, California. It had been run by the same family for decades, and after first military base food, and then restaurants on the road, it was good to eat a home cooked meal, although for Lynn, home cooking was a lot different.
They’d made friends with a young couple who were on their honeymoon, a city Firefighter and Bank Teller. Lynn could truthfully tell them that she was an Electrical Engineer while Ross’s cover story was more exotic, casting him in the role of a high-priced private consultant for insurance companies, traveling internationally to investigate high-profile crimes and disasters.
“So, how long have you two been together?” The newly married Maureen Pope saw everything through a romantic lens as you might expect.
“Well, we met on the job and we’ve worked together for months, but anything else, well it’s been pretty recent.” Lynn didn’t realize until meeting Jeffrey and Maureen Pope just how difficult it was to have a normal conversation about her life.
“How does an Insurance Investigator and an Electrical Engineer end up working together?” Jeff was right to be puzzled. Their cover stories didn’t jibe very well.
“Aircraft crash.” Ross was thinking on his feet. “I was hired to work with the NTSB investigators and she was brought in as a consulting engineer.”
“It’s amazing how such different people meet. For instance, Jeff and I…”
Blessedly, Maureen was interrupted when Ross’s cell phone rang. Caller ID was blocked which told him exactly who was calling.
He stood up. “Excuse me. I’ve got to take this.”
He walked out front and ten minutes later came back. “Sorry, Lynn. Work called. We’ve got to go.” He looked up at the Popes who were just finishing their breakfast. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you both.”
Lynn could tell he was actually relieved to get out of there.
“I’ll take care of the bill, Lynn. You get us packed up.”
“Okay, Ross.” She turned to Jeff and Maureen. “Sorry. When work calls, he turns all business.”
Whatever they had shared during the past week of their vacation was just put aside. Ross was ready to answer the call to get back to work. No matter what else was happening between them, there was always the next mission.
“So, how are we playing this?”
Travis Fox, Ross Murdock, and the rest of the team had been recalled from their vacations and were being briefed by Kelgarries, Barnes, Ashe, and Zheutlin.
“When the Orange Forerunner craft’s drive was fully powered, as nearly as we can tell from Ms. Huỳnh’s data, it created a time storm that had multiple effects, many of which we are still investigating. Chief among them was of course, the destruction of the Atlantis island chain with expected environmental consequences.”
“Such as a mini-nuclear winter.”
“Correct, Ms. Huỳnh. However, based on those readings as well as the time map analysis, we believe the Forerunner ship itself leapt forward in time to 1908 and the explosion of its drive was the direct cause of the Tunguska event which subsequently led to a runaway global increase in temperature over the past century.”
“But how do we stop it, Dr. Barnes? Do we go back to Atlantis to prevent the launch?”
“That ship has sailed as you might say, Travis.”
“Major Romanovich is correct. We cannot overlay two temporal fields, thus we cannot visit the same place and time twice. We can however do something far more radical.”
“Why do I have a bad feeling about this?”
“I have no idea, Dr. Zheutlin. What my team and I propose is the construction of two large time gates to these specifications.”
Barnes pressed a button on his remote and the wall display behind him changed to a series of complex schematics that even Lynn had difficulty deciphering.
“We will position two gates in the present, one at the launch site and the other just under the epicenter of the Tunguska blast.”
“Both the Portuguese and Russian governments are not going to like that.”
“Gordon, I believe I can grease the wheels with my government. The Portuguese are another matter.”
“I’ve been assured by both governments that we’ll receive their full cooperation and all of the privacy we require.” Kelgarries leaned forward putting his arms on the conference table. “Major Romanovich will supervise the installation of the time gate equipment at Tunguska. Thomas Lucius and Travis Fox will do the same at the Azores site.
“What? Me? I’m no scientist or technician.”
“Neither am I, dear Travis. It’s a matter of security. That’s what we do, isn’t it?”
Fox didn’t want to admit he was disappointed he hadn’t been chosen to be part of Ashe’s team.
“The plan,” Barnes continued, “is to generate a resonate field between the gates at both geographic locations, a virtual link between the two that transcends temporal space. That field should intersect with the one generated by the experimental Forerunner ship, significantly altering its path through timespace thus preventing the Tunguska explosion, and hopefully most of the effects of the Time Storm.”
“What exactly will Ashe’s team aboard the Forerunner craft be doing again?”
“As you know Mr. Fox, it is disastrous to put a temporal field and the emissions generated by a Forerunner space drive in proximity. Nevertheless, Dr. Ashe and his team will need to take the Scout Ship into a high orbit above the projected three-dimensional path between launch and crash points. You see, we’re not quite sure exactly where and when we will be sending the experimental Forerunner craft, although we believe it will be in the very distant past.”
“Right.” Lynn picked up her cue from Barnes. “We’ll be employing specialized monitors similar to what the Forerunners used to create their time maps to observe the change in the physical and temporal trajectory of the vessel. Since the scanners themselves don’t generate a temporal field, we should be perfectly safe. It’s a little like exposing old fashioned photographic film to light. The film doesn’t have to generate what it records.”
“One question, Colonel. The NSA. Will they simply allow Ashe’s team to take off in the Orange ship without their permission?”
“I’ve arranged for another inspection of the ship, similar to the one Ross and Lynn did a few weeks ago, Travis. Gordon, Aiyana, along with Ross and Lynn will supposedly be comparing the ship’s current status with how it was when they operated it in space, only instead of an inspection, they’ll seal and launch the craft before anyone can stop them.”
“Colonel, isn’t that treason?”
“It won’t be Major, if we change the timeline sufficiently to save the world. Besides. We’ve thrown the NSA enough bones to chew on for the time being. Reports indicate they won’t have a prototype spacecraft operational for at least six months. More likely a year. They won’t be paying much attention to us until it’s too late to stop us.”
“And these huge gates. How do we explain them?”
Barnes decided to answer this one. “The gate in the Azores is easy, Travis. That area has always been considered an extreme hazard for sea navigation and no one really understands why. Something like how the Bermuda Triangle is thought of. We have told the NSA we want to investigate the area for temporal anomalies, which isn’t entirely untrue. After all, we do suspect that the Time Storm initiated there is directly responsible for many strange appearances and disappearances throughout history.”
“What about the Russians, Dr. Barnes?”
“I believe I’ve already spoken to that point, Aiyana. I will travel back to mother Russia as part of my report on the Project’s activities to stop climate change and to ensure them that our national security has in no way been compromised. The necessary equipment is being shipped through various dummy corporations and will be on site and ready for construction when I arrive. The NSA should be none the wiser.”
Vasnev was hopeful that his country’s own security agencies would also be none the wiser. He had called in quite a few favors from time gate scientists and engineers of his personal acquaintance. The Tunguska expedition was supposed to examine the residual temporal effects of the 1908 blast. He did not want anyone to get wind that they were planning on radically changing history. Putin and his cronies might consider that a threat to their power base. They wouldn’t be wrong.
“As always, I’ll be running the overall Op from here. All team members will be isolated from the effects of the time change by being in close proximity to a temporal field.”
“What about the spaceship, Kelgarries? It can’t run a temporal field.”
“Well, yes it can, Travis.” Lynn spoke up turning to face her teammate. “We’ll have to completely shut down the ship’s space drive during the temporal incursion, but subjectively, that’ll only be for about a minute.”
“Doesn’t the drive run your scanning equipment as well as life support, Lynn?”
“There’s a power reserve that operates like a battery, Travis. It doesn’t generate an inertialess drive field, just electrical power for auxiliary systems, so for the time the temporal incursion is operational, we’ll be fine.”
“Okay, so if we’re finished with the general mission parameters, let’s hammer out the details of each of your assignments.” As far as Kelgarries was concerned, this is when the real job got started. “If everything goes according to plan, this will work and we will literally have saved the world.”
“But Kelgarries, if we screw it up at any point, the best we can hope for is to be put in prison for the rest of our lives. The worst is that we destroy our planet if not all of temporal reality.”
Vasnev leaned back in his chair and put the palms of his hands together. “My dear friend Ross, you are such an optimist.”
However everyone in the room including Romanovich knew that Murdock was absolutely right. One mission critical mistake and they could erase humanity from existence.
This is the first full chapter of my new “book” and a direct sequel to Prologue: Key Out of Time.
The stage is set for their next mission, the most ambitious one of their careers and their lives. The existence of humanity on Earth hinges on what they do next and there are still mysteries to explore, especially what sort of nightmares Ross is having and what his dreams tell him about the Forerunners as well as the humans who were cooperating with the Oranges at Atlantis.
The mission is launched in the next chapter of this exciting science fiction story of Gordon Ashe’s time agents and my continuing homage to the works of the late Andre Norton (Alice Mary Norton).
The next chapter is called Incursion.