Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Immersion

by Mark F. Bailey


"This is not your world yet."

Captain Mulbata raised his hands. There was a loud crack. I looked up and watched smoke boil out of a crater in the bulwark. The damned lizard missed, I thought. I would have laughed, if not for the pain. Movement caught my eye and I looked back to the captain. He slowly began to topple, a steaming, cauterized exit wound in the back of his head. The weapon's discharge had passed through it, stopped only by the wall behind. I wanted to yell, to scream, to pull out the gun from the holster at my side and lay to waste the murderers aboard our ship.

Instead, all I could do was lay there feebly on the deck, watching paralyzed as the one who had spoken expanded his head-crest in a sign of dominance. The Syld holstered its gun and motioned to the rest of the boarding party. The claws of their four-toed feet clicked on the deck plating, as they began, one by one, returning to their vessel. After all were aboard, I felt heavy impacts beneath me. They were firing on the Cronus! The deck twisted and my body began to slide to port. I came up hard against the railing and lay there, fighting to retain consciousness, only a few inches of impervalloy between me and the ocean.

They were leaving us all to die. They were leaving us to die and all I could think about was my wife and child, dead and buried on a Pennsylvania hilltop 90 million years in the future.

I heard the cry of an Ichthyornis dispar. I heard my own ragged breath. The blue sky above me shifted to black.

####

I awoke sometime later to an eerie silence broken only by waves splashing against the port beam. The sound was much closer than it should be, as if the ship were drafting far too high. I rolled onto my side, gritting my teeth. My head felt about to burst. On my right the indomitable Captain Hodan Mulbata lay where he had fallen, his vacant eyes staring skyward. Two gull-like birds, Ichthyornis disparis, were standing on his chest, using their tiny teeth to tear away the dark flesh from his neck and face. I waved my arm and managed a strangled grunt, causing them to squawk in alarm and angrily take to the air.

Nearly depleted of strength, I lay back on the deck until I could move again. This time was easier. Reaching up, I grabbed the railing and pulled myself to a sitting position. It gave me a better view of the deck -- one which I quickly regretted. I could see another body beyond that of the captain's. His name was Agent Harold Smythe. He was Head of Security and my supervisor. I had hoped that, like me, he had only been paralyzed. I could see from the pallor of his skin that this was not the case. He was perilously near death.

His body shook and I heard a tiny gasp. It set me in motion. Every muscle protesting, I crawled around the captain's body to reach him. Lightly, I held his face with both hands, trying to get his eyes to focus on me.

"Agent Smythe, can you hear me?" I asked. "It's Cadet Huntington! Do you know what weapon was used on us?" His eyes remained blank, his mouth slack. I could hear the smallest of breaths escape.

I would never know for sure, but I think that he recognized my voice. For several long moments he tried to form words, but his strength gave out just as he whispered, "Sabor."

I sat there and just stared at the man I had for the last three years looked up to and respected. Agent Harold Smythe was dead. He was more than my supervisor and mentor. I could never have called him friend, but I had admired him as a leader. Before the attack, he and I had gone out to the weather deck to go over a few drills he had planned for the security team. He liked to keep his cadets in top physical and mental shape, prepared for any eventuality. All of his drills and training, though, hadn't prepared us for this.

It was quite a shock, to say the least, when we had seen another ocean vessel on the horizon. He had no sooner called it in and was quickly making his way to the bridge, when he fell to the deck and didn't move. There had been no warning, no sound, and no flash, nothing to indicate the ultimate source of what would become his death. I had, in the same instant, felt an excruciating pain. It had brought me to the deck just as quickly. He had died. I was left temporarily paralyzed. What sort of weapon could do this? What was Sabor?

I recalled then that Captain Mulbata had looked very ill, his dark skin pale and drawn, as he made his way down to the deck. Each step seemed to cause him great pain. He had not only survived whatever the Syld used against us, but had fought off the paralysis and went on to meet the boarding party. As I stared at the two bodies near me, I questioned what trick of fate allowed me to live while the lives of two great men were meaninglessly snuffed out.

I finally got my legs beneath me and held onto the railing, gazing out at the dark waves. The sun was low on the horizon, but here, above the Arctic Circle, it would not set for another month yet. It was summer and only a brisk wind foretold the ice that would exist here millions of years from now. I watched a plume of ash rising from a volcano I could not see in the northern distance. There was no sign of the Syld vessel. I heard and felt metal giving way to water beneath me. Ocean vessels from the twenty-sixth century were hard to sink, but not impossible. The ship's days were numbered.

Closing my eyes, I searched for a connection to the temporal matrix, and after a moment cursed. All members of the Organization were implanted with a matrix: a device in the cerebrum that allows us to open a temporal wormhole to nearly any given place in time. I could no more open a portal now than take to the air and fly. Whatever the Syld had used, they had taken that from me.

I heard a soft moan from the bridge. If the captain and I had survived, it only stood to reason that others may have! As best I could, I hurried up the ladder and was horrified to find several bodies slumped over consoles and on the deck of the command station. One body was moving. I went to her and knelt down, helping her to a sitting position. Her russet hair, cut short in a fashion that would have scandalized the women of my century, did nothing to hide the tear-stains on her face.

She looked up at me and said, "Nathaniel?"

"You're OK, we're safe now," I lied, knowing no such thing.

"What happened? I was checking the morning's long-range scans when I felt a terrible pain in my head...and then I woke up...and...and..."

This woman in my arms wearing the white uniform of Research was Alyena Techne. From the moment she boarded the TRV Cronus, she had managed, without any conscious effort on her part, to evoke feelings, both strange and all too familiar, inside of me. We hadn't even left the Metronome's aquadocks, when I realized I was staring at her like a buffoon. The entirety of my knowledge of her consisted of her name and that she enjoyed the scrambled eggs the cook served on the mess deck. Not much to start a conversation with. She knew my name because Agent Smythe had made it a point that everyone on board knew the names of the assigned security team. No one else, though, had the effect on me that she had when they spoke it.

I thought of Elizabeth. Had it been long enough? It had been three years since the passing of my wife. Would she have wanted me to move on? Could I move on? Regardless, on a 77-meter temporal research vessel, I had quickly learned that it wasn't easy to avoid someone.

She closed her eyes for a moment and then looked at me frightened and said, "I can't access my cerebral AI! I can't open a portal!"

As a cadet and on bodyguard detail to a scientific expedition, I hadn't been downloaded with an AI. All scientists, though, even those still in the Academy like Alyena, had an AI with them at all times. It assisted in the learning process, like an internal tutor.

"Neither can I," I said. "It was the Syld. They must have a new weapon."

"The Syld? But we were told this was a safe area for research! It took us months to get the clearance to come here!"

I helped Alyena to her feet and to a vacant seat. I then went to the main console where I gently moved the body of the navigator from her chair to the deck. She had auburn hair, freckles on her cheeks, and green eyes that I closed with my fingers. Though determining the age of anyone in the Organization was difficult at best, I doubted that she had even seen the age of twenty. A lump in my throat, I checked the monitors. They were blank, merely casting back a shadowed reflection of a man with black, regulation cut hair and eyes full of worry. For the first time since I had awakened I felt a moment of fear. I tried to boot up the AI, but the ship remained quiet and lifeless.

"The Syld fired on the ship before they left," I said, futilely running my hand over the inoperative keypad. "They must have known exactly what to target. Without the ship's AI, we can't utilize its inboard temporal drive."

"That means we're stuck here..." she said. Her words were underscored by another groan of twisting metal below.

I nodded. "We're not only dead in the water, we're dead in time."

Alyena looked around the bridge at the corpses of the people, many of whom had families and friends waiting for them. She had spent the last two weeks getting to know them all, learning to rely on them for the successful completion of their mission, and even becoming friends with a few. I could see she was fighting back the tears, as she asked, "How could the Makers have let this happen?"

"I don't know," I said quietly. "Does the word ‘Sabor' mean anything to you?"

"No, should it?"

I shook my head and looked out the viewport to make sure the horizon was still clear of vessels. I wasn't sure what else to do, so I took her hand and said, "Let's check belowdecks. There may be other survivors."

She nodded and followed me out of the bridge and back down to the weather deck. Alyena stopped and stared at the bodies of the captain and Agent Smythe.

"My last memory before the pain struck was of the captain telling a joke from his homeland." She laughed and said, "It was crude."

"He tried to reason with them, but they shot him," I said. It was an image that I would take with me for the rest of my life. Since I'd been recruited to the Organization, it was expected that I would witness death while on my various missions to correct or stop the changing of the timelines, but no class or training exercise could have prepared me for so senseless an act.

"The Syld aren't human, Nathaniel," Alyena said, squeezing the hand I had forgotten was holding hers. "I suppose we shouldn't try to understand why they did it. They may walk on two legs and have learned to speak Terran Standard, but they lived on Earth and found a way to exterminate their own species long before the first proto-human thought to climb down from the trees."

Together we went down into the heart of the vessel and searched the various cabins, workshops, and labs. We checked the holds, the engine room, and even the mess deck. There had been 42 crew members, 12 scientists, and a security force of 4. Now there were only the two of us. Had any of them lasted as long as Agent Smythe, they were gone before we got to them. With heavy hearts we returned to the forecastle and discussed what we should do next. Neither of us were eager to do what we knew needed to be done.

"We can't leave the bodies on the ship with us," Alyena said, "and there aren't enough body bags for the number of deceased."

"We'll have to put them overboard..." I said, gripping the railing tightly.

Though there was still daylight and would be for weeks to come, it was late. I caught Alyena yawning behind her hand. "We should try to get some rest, we'll do it tomorrow."

I went back down belowdecks to get some thermal blankets for us. Cretaceous or not, high summer or not, the Arctic temperature could still range anywhere from two to ten degrees Celsius. My black jumpsuit and her white uniform were made of a waterproof material that would allow us to withstand colder temperatures, but there was no reason to test it out. Regardless, there was no way we could sleep in our cabins. Not now.

Just as I wrapped the blanket around me and sat back against a bulwark, we both heard a distant rumble and moments later witnessed a heavy plume of ash rising into the northern sky. Alyena moved closer to me and quickly fell asleep. Acutely aware of her body so close to mine, I sat there for awhile trying to think of anything but what had happened today. Soon enough I, too, fell asleep to the sound of a ship slowly dying.

####

"Nathaniel!"

I woke up, knowing only a few minutes could have passed.

"Nathaniel, I hear something!" Alyena said, pointing at the port railing. Then I heard it too. I stood up and put her behind me, drawing my weapon and aiming at the source of the sound. Something was climbing up the side of the ship!

A single three-fingered hand followed by an arm reached up and grasped the railing. Another followed and I watched a dripping form climb onto the deck. Though a bipedal humanoid, it wasn't human by a long shot. It had a very small head set on narrow shoulders. Its milky translucent skin appeared soft and malleable to the touch, its body slender and willowy. Seeing how it had easily made its way up the steep sides of the ship and onto the deck spoke of just how resilient it really was. Though I didn't recognize the species, I could clearly see this being was not of Earth.

I holstered my gun. It had one of its own at its belt, but I knew it wouldn't use it. It was wearing a specially-fitted dive suit issued by the Organization. It was one of us. Of all the anachronistic things I didn't expect to see, a wickedly serrated sword hung from a shoulder baldric. This was not standard-issue.

It looked surprised to see us. I could only guess this by the nictitating membrane that closed and opened over its large black eyes a few times before it spoke. These eyes were positioned on either side of its head, giving it nearly a 360 degree field of vision.

"You must not stay here!" it finally said in superb Terran Standard from a thin sliver of a mouth, low on its jaw and filled with tiny sharp teeth.

All the questions I had died on my lips. My hand strayed towards my gun, as I asked, "The Syld?"

It shook its head once and turned, pointing northward. On the horizon I could see a rapidly growing smudge, growing larger and filling up more and more of the horizon as I watched.

Alyena grabbed my arm and whispered, "The volcano must have triggered a tsunami..."

"If we can get to the ship's lifepods..."

"There is no time," our visitor said.

It was right. There was no way I could reach the lifepods and engage one before it struck. If we were to get into a lifepod and it not fully clear the Cronus, it would become a deathtrap, likely torn apart or pulled to the ocean floor with the rest of the ship's debris.

"What about your temporal matrix?"

"It is deactivated," it said. "I have no time to explain. Come with me, I can take you deep enough to avoid the worst."

Seeing no other alternative but to trust it, we climbed onto and over the railing. The ship began to groan ponderously. The wave was almost on us, several hundred meters off, a wall of water many stories high, crested with white foam and traveling at high speed.

Before we jumped, I asked, "Who are you?"

"I am Tallux," it answered, looking up at the approaching wave and back to me. "Agent Tallux Sabor!" It took Alyena's hand and dropped from the railing. For a moment I stared at the spot where they had vanished, hardly daring to believe what I'd heard. Sabor?

I jumped.

The wave struck.

####

If I thought waking after being brought down by Syld technology was painful, regaining consciousness this time made that seem a picnic by comparison. I have every reason to suspect that I may have thrown up most of the Arctic Ocean in those first few seconds. I tried to move and instantly felt myself slide into water. A pair of hands pulled me back.

Spluttering as my head broke the surface, I saw nothing but ocean stretching to the horizon. Alyena had her arm around my chest and I could hear her breathing by my ear as she was struggling to keep me afloat.

"Nathaniel! Take hold!"

I reached out and grabbed onto something buoyant, heaving the top half of my body onto it. Alyena was doing likewise -- something she had probably been forced to abandon to rescue me. It was a two meter-wide piece of composite debris. Able now to get a better view of our surroundings, I could see that besides a few other pieces of floating wreckage, my initial sight remained unchanged in any direction. The Cronus and all her crew and passengers, save two, were gone. We were adrift in a Cretaceous ocean where sharks would be the least of our worries.

"Our friend?" I asked.

Alyena shook her head, saying, "He left me on this section of bulkhead, while he searched for you. I thought you were dead when he returned, but he got the water out of your lungs. You cried out for someone called ‘Elizabeth' and passed out again. Once he knew you would be alright, he said he would be back and left."

I said, "He's Sabor."

She nodded, saying, "That's right, I remember he said he was Agent Tallux Sabor before we jumped. You asked me earlier if I knew what ‘Sabor' was. Who is he?"

"I don't know," I said, trying to shift my body carefully to get more comfortable without capsizing us. "My supervisor, Agent Smythe, said the name just before he died. I assumed for awhile it was the designation of the Syld weapon that was used on us."

Before she could reply, we heard a splashing and watched as our aquatic benefactor returned, easily treading water so as not to unbalance us from what had once been an inner wall of the Cronus. He was carrying a small squirming net which he placed before us on what would soon become our floating dinner table. As he emptied its contents, I could see they were tiny red fish, no bigger than my thumb. He picked one up and in one quick motion ate it. I usually preferred my meals dead before I ate them, but my suddenly growling stomach rejected the notion. I reached over, selected one and quickly swallowed it. It had a sweet taste. After seeing I didn't die of poisoning, Alyena followed my lead. I had to admit poisoning was a valid concern seeing as how we were both human and this Sabor person was not. One that I'd foolishly disregarded.

After we had our fill, he scooped the remainder back into the net and tied it to the bulkhead. It hung in the water, keeping them alive and our food source easily attainable.

"Do we have any drinkable water?" Alyena asked.

I reached down to my belt and found that I still was in possession of my canteen. Miraculously, I was pleased to find my gun was still holstered there, too. I unplugged the canteen and let it fill with seawater. Warning indicators on its side turned bright red. Putting the lid back on it again, I hit a switch and watched the lights turn to green. I twisted the lid until it became a nozzle and took a short drink. It was as fresh as a mountain stream -- if the mountain was made out of composite. We would always have water so long as its charge held.

While Alyena took a drink, I turned my attention back to our friend.

"You have many questions, I am sure," he said.

Before I could think of which question needed answering first, Alyena introduced us both and said, "To be in Research, you have to study xeno-biodiversity. I thought I knew all of the species that joined the Organization, but I don't recognize yours."

"That is not surprising," he said. "I come from a planet 20.5 light-years from Terra. One that people of your world named Blue Mantle, when it was initially explored. It was called this due to its world-spanning ocean. We have only a few island chains that rise above the surface. It was also one of the first exoplanets discovered by a Terran spectrographic telescope in the early twenty-first century, designated at that time as Gliese 581-d.

"Though I come from this world, my civilization, a marine species, was long extinct by the time your people reached it. We called our world Aaklad, which means ‘home.' Though we never achieved space-travel, we were at the height of our advancement during a time when humans were still fighting battles over food, fire, and females. I was recruited by a Terran during a bloody coup that left my homesea ravaged by war. I would have been slain, if not for the agent that opened my eyes to the universe. I am the only one of my kind in the Organization."

"What happened to your species?" she asked.

"A great war..."

Seeing that he wished not to elaborate, I asked, "How is it that you're here without an active matrix?"

"It was deactivated so that I could infiltrate a Syld research base that was thought to exist in this present," he explained. "It is well known that the Syld developed a method of temporal travel. They would have discovered me through the temporon particles in my matrix. Without its deactivation, I would have been captured within minutes of locating and entering the perimeter of the base."

It was true. We knew the Syld possessed time travel. That's why the Makers placed a temporal barrier spanning the 80 million years of the Cretaceous. The Syld can't travel outside of the barrier and only those of us with the highest clearance or under special dispensation can travel into it. However, this didn't stop the Syld from traveling as they pleased through this period of Terra's history. That they had a base here, 25 million years before the first Syld hatched from an egg, was no surprise at all. That their temporal science could allow them to locate anyone with a matrix wasn't either.

"Did you find the base?" Alyena asked.

"I did," he replied.

"What type of research is being conducted there?"

"You have experienced it, I suspect. They have been building a new weapon specifically designed against the Organization. It is a cerebral disruptor."

"It disconnects the cerebral matrix from your brain," Alyena said. "That's why so many died from it. It would cause instant death in some, a lingering death in still more, and to a very, very fortunate few a merely painful paralysis or unconsciousness."

"That is correct, Ms. Techne," he said. "I fear, though, that those in Research who know of it never suspected that there would be a survival rate. They will be glad to know it."

"You came back to this time aboard the Cronus," I said, as pieces of the puzzle began falling into place. "Agent Harold Smythe was aware of your mission."

"Agent Smythe was more than aware of my mission. He was my partner on it. He was to remain aboard the ship, ostensibly training the cadets, while I did reconnaissance. After finding the base and gathering data on what was created there, I was to return to the ship. On my way back, I spotted a returning Syld vessel. Tracing back its trajectory, I knew they had found the Cronus. One thing I had discovered while reviewing schematics of their sea vessels was that they had found a way to mask themselves from our sensors. Fearing they had likely used their weapon on the ship or even destroyed it completely, I found a small island and risked setting a temporal beacon."

"It will alert the Organization and guide a warship here to dispose of the base," I ventured.

"That is true, so long as the beacon is not discovered by the Syld," he said. "To make matters worse, the temporal barrier around the Cretaceous masks much of the beacon's signal, so even if it is picked up, a ship could arrive kilometers from it and would have great difficulty in finding the base."

"What did you do, after you set the beacon?" I asked.

"I quickly made my way to the Cronus, fearing everyone aboard had been killed. There is no known way to deflect the pulse of a cerebral disrupter. With the tsunami quickly approaching, I thought perhaps the temporal drive might yet be functional. When I found the ship listing and damaged by weapons fire, I knew the worst had happened. That is why I was so surprised to find you not only alive, but in good enough shape to shoot would-be boarders. Finding you alive also led me to the conclusion that the drive must be inoperable, or you would have already used it."

"Did Captain Mulbata know of this?" Alyena asked, heatedly.

"He did not. It was on a need-to-know basis. We were told that the ship's research would keep it far from Syld patrols."

I could see that Alyena was about to lose her composure over the agent's matter-of-fact statement. I headed it off, saying, "This is no time or place for us debate the existence of the Makers or how omnipotent they are believed to be. Whether they knew about the massacre or not, makes no difference right now. We need to survive."

They agreed and the next few hours passed without incident. Agent Sabor told us stories of his homeworld. Alyena was fascinated by his tales. I found myself watching her watching him. The way her mouth would gently curve into a smile, as she listened to him talk. Her eyes, a deeper blue than the ocean itself, followed the agent's hands as he described the glittering towers of Aaklad's underwater cities. Her hair, now drying in the sun, was left with a hint of a curl I'd not noticed before. She caught me staring at her and smiled. I looked away, shamefaced.

It was near sunset again, or would have been less than a hundred kilometers south, when Agent Sabor suddenly submerged without a word. Alyena and I looked at each other in confusion. A moment later he surfaced.

"The sea has gone quiet," he said.

Except for distant volcanic rumbles and the forlorn cry of sea birds, I thought it had been extremely quiet already. I said so.

"I am able to sense the aquatic life on those worlds with certain types of oceans," he replied. "Since the tsunami there has been plentiful fauna below us including numerous species of fish, a single Cretoxyrhina mantelli, and several plesiosauroidae which I believe to be Thililua longicollis. Though I sense them still, many are now far away and a single overpowering sense of menace pervades the waters."

Alyena took this news in stride, saying, "The Cretoxyrhina mantelli is worrisome. During the Turonian Cretaceous, it was one of the apex sharks of its time. It was slightly larger and about as voracious as the Carcharodon carcharias, or great white, of our own respective times, Nathaniel." I felt a tingle in my hand, as she touched it.

Agent Sabor cocked his head to the side, as if listening to something only he could hear. He said, "The shark is fleeing."

"Though paleobiology is not my strong subject," I said, pointing out to the west of us, "I'm fairly certain that we are currently in waters predating any whales."

Both Agent Sabor and Alyena looked to where I pointed and whispered in unison, "Mosasaur..."

"More than one," I said. I counted at least five skimming just below the surface and homing in on us like wolves to a fallen deer.

"There's so much we don't know about them still," Alyena said, completely rapt in the sight of approaching death. "It's believed they were closely related to snakes. Look how streamlined and elongated their bodies are! And the broad tail they use for locomotion. Yes, just like a sea snake!"

"Maybe we should be doing something..." I said.

"I believe these are of the species Tylosaurus proriger," Agent Sabor said. "Though they are partially submerged, they appear to be at least fifteen meters or more in length."

I looked at him dumbfounded. He, too, was staring at them like they were long, lost loves returning home.

"They're getting closer...quickly," I said.

"It can't be, Tallux," Alyena said.

"Tallux?" Since when did she start calling him by his first name?

"I stand by this, Ms. Techne," the agent replied. "Do you see the shape of the premaxilla? Its snout is elongated and cylindrical, better to stun large prey."

"I really think..."

"You may be right," Alyena said. "It's been long suspected that they preferred shallower waters such as this."

I pulled my gun from its holster and aimed at the nearest one. Unlike the projectile weapons I knew from my own century, it would take more than a few centimeters of water to lessen its impact. I fired on it and watched a spray of water, as it veered off, narrowly missing us and diving deep. The others, though, were still approaching and, if anything, speeding up. There was no way I could take them all out.

"The wounded one is returning," Agent Sabor said. "I will lead them away from you."

Without another word, he dove under and I saw a streak as he swam south. I was sure they would ignore him and target us, the easier prey, but the pack of mosasauridae split around us and gave chase. He must have gone deeper, as I quickly lost sight of them all. I could only pray he was faster than his pursuers.

When I turned back to look at Alyena, I could see that not all had followed the agent. She screamed as I took aim over her shoulder and opened fire again. The creature was nearly on us, mouth lined with razor-sharp teeth agape ready to crush and rend. This time I continued firing. At the speed of light sizzling bolts of high-yield energy connected weapon and beast with each pull of the trigger. In some back corner of my mind I knew this must be eating up the gun's charge. I felt the bow wave of the Tylosaurus, as a last shot burned through its open mouth and exited by way of its brain. It instantly slowed, half submerged and dead.

Holding steady to our floating bulkhead, as the wave of its approach passed over us, I thanked the various gods of numerous worlds that it hadn't decided to attack from below. I checked the charge on my gun and saw it was empty. With the agent gone, we were now completely unprotected.

"We've got to get away from this carcass now!" Alyena said. "It will attract every predator for kilometers!"

We chose a direction and starting paddling our feet, pushing the bulkhead along, hoping to put as much distance as we could between ourselves and the meal our would-be devourer would become. It wasn't easy. More than once, I nearly had us leave it behind. Without knowing how close to land we may be, it would be foolhardy. Sooner or later we would tire; exhaustion would then lead to certain death. At least with the bit of wreckage, we could take turns sleeping.

One 24 hour interval passed this way, followed by another, and Agent Sabor did not return. Far from the Cronus's watery grave and the site of the Tylosaurus attack, we had decided to allow the composite section of wall to drift where it may in hopes that at some point we would see one of the many tiny islands that dotted this section of the prehistoric Arctic.

The sun was directly overhead, as Alyena ate the last of the red fish that the agent had brought us. I gave her most of what remained. I had been through survival training specifically designed for cadets on their way to the Agency. Though I was sure she had some survival experience to be allowed access to temporal travel, I doubted it would have been as comprehensive.

I wanted to comfort her in any way I could, but not since the death of my wife had I been in such an extended close proximity to a woman. And Alyena was an entirely different kind of woman from an entirely different period in history. What does one say to a woman that so obviously comes from a more liberated time?

"How are you?" I asked, immediately wishing I could pull the words back in. What a stupid question!

"I'm fine," she answered. "I was thinking about Tallux. Do you think he's still alive?"

"I think so," I said. "He's a skilled agent and he comes from a world that is covered with this stuff." I dipped a hand into the water and let it pour through my fingers. If I never saw the ocean again, it would be too soon.

"I hope you're right," she said. I watched her take her hand and push back a stray lock of hair from her eyes. "He's a wealth of knowledge on exo-aquatic lifeforms."

"You like him," I said.

She looked at me strangely for a moment, before she grinned and said, "You're jealous!"

"No, no, of course not..."

She laughed and flung water at me. Taking a more serious tone, she said, "You have nothing to worry about. There are some women that find extraterrestrials alluring, and I'll admit there are some species that are...intriguing, but I have a preference for human males." As she talked, I could see she was getting more and more embarrassed, as though she was saying too much.

I couldn't help but smile, so before I got another faceful of ocean water, I changed the subject and said, "So, tell me about your research here. Paleo-herpetology, right?"

"We've come to prove that a species of tropical turtle from Cretaceous Asia migrated over the northern pole to reach North America," she answered.

"You've come back 90 million years for turtles?"

"Not just any turtles, Nathaniel," she said, her eyes taking on a light of their own, as she explained. "The Aurorachelys gaffneyi, the aurora turtle. When fossils of freshwater Asian turtles were discovered in the Canadian Arctic, it was believed that they must have migrated there. Some believed they migrated by way of an Alaskan land bridge, but others, and I'm one of them, think they island hopped. We had the TRV Cronus anchored not far from what will be the far north of Canada and east of the Western Interior Seaway that splits North America."

"If they were freshwater, how did they migrate over a saline ocean?"

"Have you noticed anything about the water?" she asked.

I'd noticed plenty of things about the water, most of them disparaging by this point, but I knew that's not what she meant. I dipped my fingers into it and carefully tasted them. It was salty, but far less than what I recalled from my other trips to the ocean.

"It's different somehow..." I said, taking a drink from the canteen to clear out the taste.

"It's not safe to drink, but it has a far reduced saline content." By this time Alyena was fairly vibrating with enthusiasm. She continued, "For the same reason that we are not freezing to death, the temperature is increased in this area due to the high volcanic activity and the subsequent concentration of carbon dioxide. Rivers from Eurasia and Canada are pouring into the Arctic and introducing a layer of freshwater over the saltier depths. Also, as you know, the volcanoes are creating islands. These are allowing the turtles to reach their migratory destination. In our time these islands will become the Alpha Ridge: a chain of submerged mountains that connects northern Russian and North America."

"Did you find the turtles before the Syld found us?" I asked.

Her energy vanished with one word, "No." She took the canteen from me, took a drink, and said, "I don't suppose it matters now."

Another day passed, when both the best and the worst happened. We had both fallen asleep; my right hand in her left, so that in the event that one of us slipped off of the bulkhead, it should awaken the other. I woke up, clearing sleep from my vision, enjoying the soft feeling of her hand in mine, when I spotted a volcano in the distance. More importantly and closer still, I spotted land. Not much land, perhaps several hundred meters across. I could see a tiny red light flashing from its dark beach. It was the temporal beacon Agent Sabor had placed! I nearly yelled out, but then saw a vessel sitting just offshore. It had the long brutal shape and markings of the Syld.

I carefully squeezed Alyena's hand. She woke up and looked to see me placing my finger to my lips and then pointing to the isle. Instantly tense, I could tell she was coming to the same realization as I: their sensors had picked up the beacon.

"What do we do?" she asked.

We were still a good ways from both ship and island. "For now, we need to stay as low to the surface as possible and try not to speak," I said. "I don't know what their ship can or can't detect."

I could see from here figures, armed to the teeth, moving about on the ship's decks. They were bipedal with slender tails balancing them from behind. Like their far-lesser intelligent cousins, the pack-hunting raptors, they had the familiar gait of birds. No females took part in any Syld military, so all aboard the ship were male and possessed the colorful head-crests of their sex. I thought of Captain Mulbata's murder and wished more than ever that my gun's charge hadn't depleted.

The Syld were a species of the Dromaeosauridae family that evolved on a small land mass in the North Atlantic. Approximately 300,000 years before the K-T extinction event their true intellect began to manifest with the advent of fire. From here they followed a very similar pattern to that of mankind, spreading out from their homeland and colonizing much of antediluvian Terra. They built magnificent cities in the jungled continents, warred amongst themselves, and eventually created an empire based solely on science.

A species constantly at war and finding new ways to wage it, it was no surprise that they discovered time travel completely on their own and faster than their Homo sapiens counterparts. At the same time, the Makers, the far-future beings that ultimately created the Organization, set up the temporal barrier around the Cretaceous, and kept them from expanding their militaristic empire across time and possibly keeping mankind from ever having existed. The Syld destroyed themselves and nearly all life on Terra trying to break through the barrier.

A single bright discharge from the ship took out the beacon. The ship began to move. I could see that it would pass very near to us. If the Syld found us, we were as good as dead.

"We need to go under!" I said.

Alyena looked at me and nodded. I grabbed both her hands, as we let go of the bulkhead, took a deep breath, and submerged below it. We swam until the pressure became uncomfortable. I looked up and saw the ship's approach, its wake a white froth behind. Alyena's hands tightened on mine, getting my attention. She hadn't been able to get a good breath before going under. It wasn't going to last. I pulled her close to me, put her lips to mine and breathed into her. I hoped against hope that the ship would move off soon. At first, she struggled, but then seeing what I was doing, she clung to me. I couldn't help but revel in the feeling of her lips on mine and her arms holding me close.

I pulled away at last and saw that the Syld vessel had moved off quickly, seemingly in a hurry to be somewhere. Their research base? We quickly ascended and broke the surface gulping air and coughing. Our bulkhead was nowhere to be seen. We didn't need it anyway. Swimming for shore, we crawled up on a beach of sharp, volcanic rock. We lay there for long minutes, catching our breath. I was never so happy to feel something solid and immovable beneath me. I turned over and watched several Ichthyornis disparis fly overhead. Odd, how much they look like seagulls, I thought.

Catching sight of the three-meter wingspan of the pterosaur, Dsungaripterus, brought me back to reality. I turned to Alyena who was picking herself up from the ground. I did likewise and surveyed the island. There was absolutely nothing growing on it. It was just a large, black rock sticking up from the ocean surrounded by crushed, glass-like sand. There was no apparent food or water source. We would have to rely still on my canteen and hope that something to eat would present itself. This seemed doubtful to me.

I went to the beacon and found it to not be as badly damaged as I feared. The blast had only caught one end of it, knocking it from the sand and shutting it down. I sat down on the sand and tried to reset it, but it wouldn't respond. I opened up its exterior sheathing and found some of the wires had fused with the heat of the Syld weapon's discharge.

"Are you going to try and fix it?" Alyena asked.

"I'm going to try..."

"Is that wise?" She looked out over the waves. "I mean, with the Syld already having picked it up once before?"

"We can't just sit here on this island and hope that the Organization sends back a warship," I replied, "and that it finds us here on this speck of an island in the Arctic Ocean." I looked up at her and finished, "Even if it means possible discovery by the Syld, I have to give us every chance to be rescued."

"OK," she said. I thought for a moment she would argue, but instead she went to have a look around. I found myself watching her walk away, the beacon forgotten. I hadn't noticed before that her uniform, even salt-stained, clung to her form. She had an athletic body that would have lent itself better to the Agency, rather than Research. I turned my attention back to the task at hand.

I had just rewired the beacon with a tool from my belt, and was about to test it, when I heard Alyena exclaim. I dropped the beacon and ran to the far side of the island and found her on her knees -- surrounded by countless turtles. They were climbing out of the northern surf, about a meter in length, with almost perfectly circular shells. They flowed around Alyena and continued to the far side of the island where they would soon begin again their slow migration south to the next island they instinctually knew how to find.

Alyena looked up at me with tears in her eyes. She lightly touched those nearest on their shells, as they passed without any fear of humans. I carefully made my way to her through the bale of turtles that moved to a single purpose. She stood up and hugged me and, in her excitement, kissed me. Shocked, we looked at each other for just a moment. We suddenly clung tighter, our uniforms coming off in a flurry, as neither of us could hold back the passion burning inside. With the sound of hundreds of sturdy feet scrabbling around us, we made love, we lived life, and life lived around us.

After some time, the turtles had migrated on -- possibly perplexed and wondering if they shouldn't have taken the Alaskan land bridge, after all. I knew better than to mention that we had probably just missed our last opportunity for food.

As we lay on the sand, our uniforms beneath us, and a soft breeze cooling our skin, Alyena asked, "Who is Elizabeth? You cried out for her, when you were unconscious after the tsunami."

"She was my wife," I answered. I took a deep breath and continued, "She was taken from me during the Revolutionary War, when British deserters forced their way into my home while I was away. They did terrible things to both her and my child, the worst of which was leaving them with the smallpox. They died less than a month later."

"Was this before..."

"Yes, before my recruitment," I said. "I was recruited to the Organization the day I buried them."

She pulled closer to me, snuggling her face to my chest, and said, "I'm so sorry."

I had the beacon working within the hour, its red light flashing and its transmitter sending out a temporal signal to any who could pick it up across time. We spent the next hour trying to find a sheltered spot on the island away from the cool wind. The volcano continuously erupted in the distance. We spent the time in each other's arms without even a fire. With the gun depleted, I couldn't even heat rocks. It wasn't freezing, but I would akin the temperature drop to an early-spring day in eighteenth century Pennsylvania.

The sun was only beginning to make its way up from almost setting again, when something woke me. I looked out over the water and saw a ship. This time, I recognized the configuration. It belonged to the Organization. I woke Alyena whose head was resting on my shoulder. She smiled.

####

The ship picked us up. Agent Tallux Sabor was aboard. He had survived being chased by the Tylosaurs, only to be captured by the Syld. Rescue soon came in the form of the Valiant, a temporal warship of the Organization with skycraft that bombed the Syld research base and destroyed all their ships in the surrounding area -- likely including the one that we had found here by our island. In the confusion, Agent Sabor had escaped and been welcomed aboard. When they learned there were two more survivors of the Cronus, they began a search that eventually led them to the beacon that had suddenly come back to life.

The three of us were together again amidships at the starboard rail of the Valiant, as it prepared to return to the twenty-sixth century. I could see that the agent's sword, battered and scarred, had gotten some use, before he escaped the Syld. I was sure they disarmed him upon capture, so he must have retrieved it. His standard-issue gun was missing, but in its place at his belt was a Syld hand weapon. Otherwise, without knowing more about the facial characteristics of his species, I couldn't see that he was any the worse for wear.

"Tell me about the sword, Tallux," I said, deciding to use his first name. I figured we had been through enough to warrant that.

He took it from the baldric where it hung on his back and allowed me to hold it. It was exceptionally lightweight, but extremely sturdy and well-balanced.

He said, "I am a prince, Cadet Huntington. My father was a great king on my world, but with many enemies. He was killed in the coup d'état. This blade saved my life more than once. The Organization allows me to keep it."

I handed the sword back to him, and said, "I'm glad to see you survived."

"As I am glad that you survived your ordeal at sea," he said. "I worried, when I could not make it back to you."

"Did you have your matrix reactivated?" I asked.

"I did," he answered. "I was told that your own cerebware would be repaired once we make it back."

"Tallux," Alyena said, "how is it that the Makers did nothing to stop the massacre? You know as well as I that it's been recorded. They knew of it and yet they let it happen."

"It is not for one such as I to understand the Makers," he answered, as though by rote. "I can only assume that the death of so many people had a meaning that only they can know and comprehend."

"Do you truly believe that?" she asked.

"I do, Ms. Techne."

After a few moments of silence, Tallux said, "Ms. Techne, I plan on returning here and doing some research of this area on my own time. Would you care to accompany me?"

She shook her head, saying, "No, I've seen and heard all I care to." With that she walked away.

I felt the temporal drive engage and watched as a wormhole opened in front of the ship. Revealed beyond were the familiar crystalline waters and beckoning lights of the Metronome's aquadocks.

The greatest achievement of mankind, the Metronome marked the rhythm of the timelines, so that we, the Agency within the Organization, could protect them. There were species out there, like the Syld, which would stop at nothing to erase mankind from existence. I wondered if the Makers were any different. Would they stop at nothing to preserve temporal harmony?

THE END


© 2009 Mark F. Bailey

Bio: Mark Bailey has been reading science fiction, fantasy, and horror for as long as he can remember. Inspired by the heroic fiction of Robert E. Howard and Karl Edward Wagner, the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, and the epic fantasy of Robert Jordan, he travelled through time and across the cosmos, eventually putting his imagination to paper (or keyboard) and saw his first publications in Sensations Magazine. People are always asking him where he gets his ideas. Simply, he writes what he enjoys reading, hoping in the meantime that maybe, just maybe, someone else out there will enjoy it too.

E-mail: Mark F. Bailey

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