The Present: Project Retrograde
“So, what’s going to happen when you throw the switch, Barnes?”
Colonel John Kellaries was facing Project Retrograde’s senior temporal physicist Antoine Barnes on the floor of the main personnel time gate chamber. Next to him was his Russian counterpart and recent defector Mineyev Duskin.
“Actually, it will be Mr. Lucius and Ms. Huỳnh who will be doing the switch throwing, Colonel. Dr. Duskin and I have devised a specialized start up and operating routine for the gate that will allow us to retrieve our agents, but it will be a dangerous thing.”
“Yes, I’m getting that impression. Just how dangerous?”
“Because of certain…well, quirks in the current nature of how the gates are working, we can only contact our agents by deliberately and simultaneously linking all gates operating in our present and perhaps even gates operating in other time periods.”
“That’s quite a roll of the dice, Barnes.”
“It is indeed a gamble,” Duskin added. “However, part of the program the gate will be running is a location and identification algorithm. We have specific DNA and RNA traces which will not only identify our team but exactly which versions of them we will need to retrieve.”
“You mean there’s a chance we could bring back Ross, Ashe, or the others from different time missions like say, when Murdock was first sent back as a Beaker trader?”
“In theory yes, but…” Duskin began.
“…but with those tracer values specified, our program should bring back the correct versions…” Barnes continued.
“…thus avoiding any sort of time paradox,” Duskin was finally able to finish .
“Would just one of your speak at any given time, please? I’m getting a headache.”
“Sorry, Colonel.” Barnes apologized. Duskin opened his mouth and then decided not to tempt Kelgarries’s patience.
“So is that the only danger, getting the wrong versions?”
Barnes looked at Duskin who nodded and smiled indicating the American scientist should be the one to respond. “No, Colonel. As I said all of the gates will be linked, thus we might retrieve others, Russian time travelers for example, or in theory, one or more members of our team could find themselves going through a Russian gate.”
“Ahem.” Duskin obviously wasn’t clearing his throat.
“Oh yes, one more thing.”
“My cup runneth over,” Kelgarries rolled his eyes.
“There might also be the possibility of people falling through into alternate histories, timelines not normally accessible through the gates because history has changed to preclude them.”
“Like a world where climate change is still a threat, or where the Forerunner ship still explodes over New York City in a few years.”
“Yes, quite. But as I said, our program should…”
“But the Russians won’t be running your program, will they?”
“Vasnev has been attempting to explain the situation to them. We are willing to freely share our research with them, particularly if they’re in a similar situation,” Mineyev felt it was a good time to contribute.
“You mean they might have agents lost in time as well.”
“Romanovich have any luck?”
“I haven’t heard as yet, but I suspect he’s still trying.”
“When will you be ready?”
This time Barnes answered. “Technically now. We were just hoping to get the Russians on board with our program, so to speak.”
“In communications, I believe.”
“Fine, Duskin. I’d better talk to him before we get started just in case he has some good news.”
“We can only wait so long, Colonel,” Barnes called to the Army officer as he was about to turn and leave. “With or without the Russian’s cooperation, we have a window of…” the scientist checked his watch, “…fifty-seven minutes before the gates destabilize again.”
“Fifty-seven minutes,” Kelgarries muttered to himself as he walked toward the exit. “Terrific.”
Sunday, August 30, 1953 – The Superstition Mountains, Arizona
“Gloria’s going to be pissed when she finds out you came back here and brought me with you.” Travis Fox was following his grandfather Chano, who in 1953 was younger than he was, over rocky terrain in the legendary Superstitions, well off any trail or path that was recognizable, even to the Apache.
“That’s why I didn’t tell her, Travis. I’ll face her after we’ve done what we need to do. By the way, what is that exactly?”
“Like I said, I want to show you something, but you’ve got to point me to exactly where you found me.” Travis had no intention of showing Chano anything if he could help it, but if there was any hope of getting back to the present, back to his wife and children, it would be through the time gate if by some miracle it was still active. Maybe Kelgarries even sent a retrieval team, though that would probably complicate things with Chano.
“We’re almost there.”
“Good. I don’t like the looks of that sky.”
“Yeah, I noticed. Another afternoon thunderstorm coming in. No chance of us making it to the Well and back to the truck before it hits. Now are you glad I brought extra rain gear for you?”
Travis had learned all of the legends about the Superstitions at his grandfather’s knee, or he would many decades from now. One said that the Gateway to Hell was somewhere up in these mountains. He was glad he had a guide. Travis would have been hard pressed to find his way by himself and without a GPS device, he’d be really lucky to get back to the truck alone. If everything worked out though, he shouldn’t have to.
He regretted leaving his 10th Century BCE costume back at Chano’s and Gloria’s place, but it couldn’t be helped. Fortunately, it was made of ordinary materials, cloths, furs, leather. Nothing that would indicate it came from the 21st century. He was pleased to discover that his earpiece and throat mike were still with him. They were almost invisible unless you knew exactly what you were looking for. If the gate were open, he should be able to communicate or at least hear if the Project was trying to contact him.
Lightning and then thunder. It caused a momentary burst of static in his earpiece.
“Just a few miles away. We’d better hurry, Travis.”
“I am hurrying.” Travis thought he was in pretty good shape. He was a rancher, which meant he lived an active lifestyle, plus the additional training provided by the Project certainly helped, but trying to keep up with Chano made him feel a little like an old man. Now he knew how Chano felt years in the future as he watched Travis grow into a young man.
“I think the thunder god isn’t happy that we’re going to the Well, Travis.”
“What’s the Well?”
Chano rounded a bend and stepped between two large stone formations that looked like columns. “This is.”
Travis walked up beside the younger man and stopped to catch his breath. It had been a hell of a climb. Then he found himself staring at a large opening in the stone floor just ahead. “Bottomless pit?”
“The Gate to Hell or it’s supposed to be. I found you just this side of the edge, like Hell spit you out.”
Another burst of static in his earpiece. Lightning? He hadn’t heard any. For a second he heard a man’s voice, but not English. Russian? Then there was, “Gordon…*static*…you receiv…*static*…I think I’ve got…How about you?”
It was Lynn, but she was talking to Gordon as if he weren’t in the present, as if they were talking through the gate. But then where and when was the senior time agent?
“Hang on, Lynn. The readings are changing. Yes. I think you’re right. The phase lock is synching.”
He could barely hear Lynn, but Ashe sounded like he was standing right next to him.
“Lynn! Gordon! Can you hear me! It’s Travis.” He knew Chano would be confused, but he had to take the chance and make contact. It seemed as if the gate must be right in front of him, suspended directly over the Well, the alleged entrance to Hell.
“Who are you talking to? Who the hell are Lynn and Gordon?”
Travis was following what the voices were saying in his earpiece, “Gord…you’ve got to…ome back right…”
As if on cue, there was a lightning strike nearby, less than a mile now. The storm was almost on top of them. Then the temporal field flashed confirming the time traveler’s fears. The gate was suspended exactly over the center of the Well. When he jumped through from ancient Israel, he must have had enough forward momentum to land at the edge rather than fall in. Now to get back home, he’d have to jump over the Well. If he missed, he’d fall to his death.
“I’m sorry, Chano. I can’t explain.”
Another lightning strike. This one shook the ground they were standing on. It started to rain hard. With Chano momentarily distracted, Travis hit him in the face as hard as he could. His grandfather was staggered and dazed but not unconscious. He only had a few seconds.
“Gord…you’ve got to…ome back right…”
He could hear them but they couldn’t hear him. He only had the voice from the future and faith. “Here we go.” Travis Fox took several steps back and then ran forward as fast as his tired legs could take him. Chano was still trying to get his vision to clear as Travis leapt directly over the Well and into infinity.
10th Century BCE – Near Hebron
Even accused of witchcraft, Aiyana knew she would be taken before the court and there’d be a trial. They weren’t going to execute her right here and now, although Aviram looked angry enough to pick up the first stone. But it wouldn’t matter by then. The last readings she saw on the tracking device, the tablet lying just a meter away, said the gate would be open to the present for just a few more seconds.
“Release her Aviram, by order of the High Priest.”
Aviram, his herdsmen, and Aiyana were all surprised to see a group of Temple guards running at them across the pasture. In the terror and excitement of the moment, no one had noticed them approaching.
“But…” Aviram loosened his grip, not knowing what to do or why these guards were here.
The High Priest. He had told her she didn’t belong here, that she had to go back where she came from, almost admitting he somehow knew she was a time traveler, if he could imagine such a thing. Now Temple guards. The Priest discovered this would happen too?
Aviram was off-balance. She took advantage of that and shoved his chest back as hard as she could. He let go of her completely to try to keep his balance. Aiyana spun, bent down at a run long enough to pick up the sensing device and ran at the gate. She’d have to leave everything the donkey had been carrying behind. It couldn’t be helped now.
“I’m coming, Lynn. Hang on for just a second more.” She didn’t have time to look at the readings on the device again. As over a dozen men watched, Rachel Bat Ester jumped into a shimmering light and vanished.
The Temple guards, the herdsmen, and Aviram said many prayers and blessings not certain if what they’d witnessed were a miracle or sorcery.
Early 21st Century – The Soviet Union
As Gordon Ashe leapt through the time gate hopefully leaving 1922 and Egypt behind forever, he felt a pair of arms grab him at the moment of transit and then the sensation of falling. Bright lights. Echo. He was in a large room. Shouting. He was being held by a man speaking Russian. They were all speaking Russian. Gordon’s vision focused. Not Russian Army. Those were Soviet uniforms.
“Something went wrong with the second manned test. Where did this person come from?” A scientist. Lab coat. A much younger version of Mineyev Duskin but in the corrected timeline, the Soviet Union shouldn’t exist. Second manned test. This was before the defector, before the Americans had the time gate. It’s over ten years in the past but another timeline.
Ashe was dressed in clothes Howard Carter had given him back in 1922 so they must have supposed their agent brought back a native of the past.
It seemed like everyone was moving in slow motion, but that was just because of his surprise and shock. The agent let go of Ashe to get on his feet. Duskin was only a second or two away, followed by other scientists, technicians, and armed soldiers. The gate was still active. He had to get back through before they turned it off.
Gordon jumped up and ran back into the temporal field. This time there was no one waiting for him as he passed through the other side into…what?
The Distant Past – Under the Ice of Europa
Ross Murdock was still groggy but he could hear the strange Forerunner speech all around him, those odd clicks and crackles and the sound of a newspaper being crumbled into a ball. He was standing in front of their gate. The way home must be right through the field. Then it sparked and flashed and the Forerunners sounded surprised or unhappy. A figure was coming through.
“Ross. Where the hell…?”
Ashe looked around and found himself surrounded by Blue Forerunners. He recognized the Europa base but it looked different. “The past.”
Both Ross and Gordon felt a sudden stabbing pain shoot through their skulls. Murdock didn’t need to look to know what was happening. The Forerunner telepathic device could be a communicator or a weapon.
“Go through now.” He recognized the same Forerunner “voice,” the one he’d talked with in that virtual reality room or where ever he had been. He felt hands on him, pushing him forward. He caught a glimpse of Ashe next to him and then the familiar feeling of passing through a temporal field, a sense of having no location at all, and then the other side.
Sunday, August 30, 1953 – The Superstition Mountains, Arizona
Chano thought Travis might have broken his jaw for a minute but the pain was passing. He looked up. Had the other man really jumped into the Well? The young Apache started to believe that maybe Hell really did spit Travis out and that he had jumped back in. Then something flashed and sparked directly over the Well. Chano thought it was an electrical discharge from the storm at first but it took a shape. Something formed inside, a woman, but her outline was visible for only an instant and then it was gone.
His eyes were wide. He ignored the rain, the lightning. This was a place of spirits. Who the hell was Travis Fox?
Saturday, December 2, 1922 – Valley of the Kings – Egypt
Howard Carter had just watched the stranger named Gordon Ashe vanish into a field of light but while the man was gone something else was still there in the Tomb of Tutankhamen. For an instant, the outline of a man appeared, but it wasn’t Ashe. Someone else was coming through. No. The shape of the man vanished. The archaeologist didn’t know what he was witnessing but without others to corroborate his story, he might as well keep it to himself as Ashe requested. No use risking being locked away as a lunatic.
Early 21st Century – The Soviet Union
Travis had made it through the gate but not home. For a second, he was in some dark place, maybe underground. There was a man in some sort of old-fashioned suit staring at him and then that faded. Now he saw what looked like a military base. Lots of uniforms, Soviet Uniforms. Then he faded again.
Five Years Ago, Operation Retrograde
Aiyana Zheutlin finally got away from Aviram and jumped through the active temporal field, but then she wasn’t at base. For an instant she was in some sort of mountainous area. A man, dark skin, half lying on the ground, looking at her. Rain. Lightning. Then she faded. Now she was back at base but not her base. There was Kelgarries but he was a Major again and his face. He was younger. Then the image dissolved.
10th Century BCE – Near Hebron
Ross and Gordon passed through the gate on Europa but then they weren’t back at base. For just a few moments, they recognized the pasture where Aviram’s sheep were tended. There were men, herdsmen, men who looked like guards or soldiers. Then it was gone.
The Present – Project Retrograde
“Damnit, they’re bouncing around all over the place. Duskin, give me a hand with these adjustments.”
The Russian scientist started working with the agitated Barnes at one of the controls. “Yes, I think we’re getting it, Antoine.”
“Romanovich must have convinced your people in Russia to run our program, Duskin. The interference is clearing up.”
“The four fields are almost synchronous,” Lucius and Huỳnh worked together at the main controls while the two temporal physicists were at an auxiliary panel. Kelgarries looked at a projection of the time map on a third console and the configuration was changing from multiple, blurred images to a single pattern.
“We’re set. Thomas. Lynn. Bring them back now,” Duskin directed.
“Retrieving.” Lynn made the fine adjustments as Lucius handled the primary controls.
“Look. They’re coming back.” Colonel Kelgarries saw four shapes forming, emerging.
“Well, someone is.” Lucius stood ready to hit the panic button in case something went wrong.
The temporal field shifted, became invisible for a moment, then sparked and flashed white and yellow light.
And then finally, after what seemed an eternity, the four time travelers were back. Gordon Ashe, Ross Murdock, Aiyana Zheutlin, and Travis Fox had returned to where and when they belonged.
Thomas Lucius bowed his head briefly and Lynn heard him whisper, “Thank God.” The head gate technician began the normal shutdown sequence. Lynn ran forward wrapped her arms around Ross and passionately kissed him.
Then everyone else rushed forward to shake hands, hug, welcome, cry over, and laugh with the returnees. The time agents were home.
The four time agents have finally been retrieved, but will there be an aftermath to this latest time gate anomaly? What did Ross Murdock learn from the Orange Forerunners on Europa of the distant past and how will that affect the future missions of Project Retrograde, especially with the threat of Climate Change now abated? There’s one more chapter or at least an Epilogue to this book to tie up the loose ends. Then Gordon Ashe’s team and their missions will take a new direction. But unfinished business will have to be cleared up first.
In my homage to the works of the late Andre Norton (Alice Mary Norton), this book is being called “Key Out of Time,” and the chapters thus far are:
- Prologue: Key Out of Time
- Interlude: What Lies in the Deep
- The Lost and the Found
- Falling Down the Rabbit Hole
- Diverting Armageddon.
- Eye of the Storm
- Scattered Thou Across the Ages
- Walking on Fragile Ribbons of Time
I took the title from a quote from the Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie, “Time is the longest distance between two places.”
The final chapter of this book is called Epilogue: Key Out of Time.