“What the hell were you thinking, Commander?” General Haricort yelled.
I stood at attention, holding every muscle as stiff as I could, the wound in my thigh aching to be released. Not daring to break my gaze at the picture of the president on the wall directly in front of me, I replied, “Sir, I was taken prisoner. There was nothing else I could do.”
“You thought surrendering to the enemy was the best course of action?” the General asked, approaching me from behind his desk.
“It wasn’t by choice, Sir.”
The General stood before me, his face in mine. “You knew evading capture was the top priority, Commander,” he said, his eyes glaring. “Or wasn’t that made clear enough?”
Now focussing on his beady, blue eyes peering into mine only inches away, I replied, “Sir, I had to give myself the possibility to try again for the key.”
“So, you figured you’d risk giving the Aranthans our intelligence? You know they can extract intel without you knowing.”
“Sir, I never gave them anything.”
“You had better hope not, Commander. For all our sakes.” General Haricort resumed his position behind his desk, his tone slightly softening. I was tired of his grilling, it had been going on for over half an hour now. “You lost your entire squad, and with nothing to show for it. This was supposed to be a stealth infiltration to capture that portal key and then get out again. What the hell happened?”
“I don’t know, Sir. We double checked our suits. We should have been invisible to them, and I know we were for a time, but then after approaching the control room, our stealth tech was jammed and we stood before them as plain as day. I didn’t think they had that tech.”
“We tried to fight our way out, but we were in too deep and there were too many of them.”
“So, you surrendered.”
“I didn’t surrender, Sir. I was taken captive.”
“If you didn’t break the capsule, you surrendered… Commander.”
“Sir, I -”
“I don’t want to hear it.” the General stated.
“So, what do you have for me, Commander?” he asked.
“Only that there’s something big about to happen, something which will come through the portal.”
“That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?”
“Not bloody good enough. What’s coming through, Commander? More of them? And when?” he probed.
“I don’t know, Sir. I only heard a fraction of what was being said. I just know it’s big and they intend to wipe us out with it.”
“Well, at least we have the heads up that the end is nigh. Right Commander?” he said sarcastically.
I didn’t respond.
“I should bust you down to Corporal for this,” he said. “You will be kept under strict surveillance to make sure you haven’t been compromised.” He spoke to the intercom. “Come in, Lieutenant.”
The Lieutenant who escorted me from my quarters entered and stood beside me. “Lock him back in his quarters, and maintain 24/7 guard outside.”
“Yes, Sir,” the Lieutenant said, saluting.
I saluted the General, turned on my heel and departed, walking as smoothly as I could manage with my wounded thigh screaming at me. I did not like Haricort. He was not an agreeable man and had an attitude of his way or the highway.
Returning to my quarters, I collapsed on my bunk feeling my leg bitterly complain. I could see the security cameras peering down at me, watching every moment. Trying to ignore them, I draped my arm over my eyes and replayed the mission over again in my mind, searching for alternatives but resulting in the same outcome. Although I’d made it out alive, I carried the guilt of letting down my team. They were my responsibility and now I have to undergo intense scrutiny to ensure I’m not compromised. Rolling onto my side, I closed my eyes and wished I could just make things right. I hated being scrutinised and wished I could be invisible. With that thought in mind, I eventually fell asleep.
I was woken by sirens sounding all around me. Opening my eyes, I realised I wasn’t in my quarters anymore, but within an army tent comprising of several bunks. From where I was sitting, I could see people outside running about frantically. Suddenly a silhouetted figure appeared at the door and shouted, “Commander! We need you! Now!”
“What?” I rose and walked towards him, noticing my thigh wasn’t protesting. I couldn’t place the uniform, it was similar to my Nerali fatigues but sported a slightly different camouflage pattern and colour. “Who are you?” I asked. “Where am I?” I looked at the apparent chaos outside. “What’s going on?”
“Sir, come with me,” he replied. “It will be explained very shortly.”
I followed the soldier, he couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, but bore the stripes of a sergeant. A bit young? I thought. He led me into a tent nearby, similar in size to the one I had just been in, but the bunks had been replaced with a large, holographic display in the centre of the room. Several personnel were standing around the display in deep discussion when they stopped and looked as I entered. None of them could have been over thirty.
“Commander Andrews, welcome,” said the man at the opposite side of the display, wearing the insignia of a general. “Please, come forward. Officers, you are dismissed.” The five officers saluted and filed out of the tent.
I approached the table. “My name is General Smythe. Thank you for joining us,” he said.
“Joining who, exactly?” I asked. “And where am I?”
“Pardon the confusion,” said the General. “We needed to act immediately without preparing you first.”
“Preparing me? For what?”
“This is base camp Exmarr. We are Squad Nine of the Nerali Defence force.”
“You are not squad nine, they are all dead,” I retorted bitterly. “And this is not Exmarr.”
“Sorry, Commander, but it is. Just not as you know it.” He paused before continuing, “Yours was over two hundred years ago.”
Stunned, I said, “Pardon?”
“We have plucked you out of your time to bring you here on matters of the highest priority. We have a situation with the Aranthans which we feel only you can assist us with.”
I was still getting over ‘two hundred years ago’. “Time travel?” I queried.
“Yes, Commander. We need to bring you up to speed, quickly,” he began. “We developed time travel some one hundred and twenty years ago. It began as a short jump but now we can span centuries. When we retrieve someone who hasn’t jumped before, we usually send someone to prepare the first-time jumper as it is… disconcerting.”
“I’ll say,” I muttered.
“This time we didn’t have that luxury which explains why you’ve been unconscious for the past thirty hours.”
“Thirty hours?” I muttered. “Then… when am I?”
“You’re in the year 2457.”
I did the maths. “Two hundred and forty-six years in the future?”
“That’s correct,” he confirmed. “We have bought you here to aid us in the war against the Aranthans.”
“We’re still at war with them?” I asked.
“More than ever. They are colonising our planet and using us as slaves, and fodder. Our population has declined by over forty percent since their mass arrival over a hundred years ago.”
Shit. I never thought it would get that bad. There were only a hundred or so of them. “What happened?” I asked.
“I can’t go into that, Commander. It will affect the timeline.”
I shook my head. Damned temporal dynamics. I’d learnt a little about them but never considered I would be a part. “Show me the Aranthans,” I said, looking at the display.
With a wave of his hand, the region of Exmarr stood holographically in the middle of the room, blue patches representing Nerali territory, the largest one being the main city which took about half the map’s display. The two red areas nearby represented the Aranthans, one about half the size of the capital city, the other about a quarter. Then the General zoomed out to show the entire country. I could see large red patches where our cities used to be with numerous smaller blue ones. As I examined the map, another blue turned red.
“Kinlsar has fallen,” the General stated. “What you see here is happening all over the planet. Many areas are still ours, but we are holding on by the skin of our teeth. We need a new tactic, something they are not expecting,” he said.
“So, what can I do?” I asked.
“We wish to take samples of your blood so we can synthesise what you have in there, and then construct a bioweapon from it.”
“What exactly do I have? And why me? There must be someone else in this time who can help,” I said.
“You’d better take a seat for this, Commander,” General Smythe said, indicating a chair nearby. Could this get any worse? I sat.
“You have been infected with a virus we call CNB-045J. We believe it originated in the caves off Joral in the Frether region some one hundred years ago. It was transferred into small rodents who ate the moss. They became carriers although remained asymptomatic. Small animals who ate the rodents also ended up as carriers and again didn’t suffer any symptoms. Then larger animals fed off the smaller. These animals roamed all over the Frether region spreading the virus amongst themselves. Soon, some of these animals died prematurely of what seemed to be at the time no apparent cause. Some were caught as food by remote Nerali colonies, wiping out their older populations within months.”
It just got worse. “So, how could I have it?” I asked.
He nodded, “It eventually mutated becoming airborne transmissible. It soon spread from one village to the next, into cities and then globally. No one knows if they are infected unless we test them. We now assume everyone is infected. And we still don’t have a cure. You were infected as soon as you arrived here. We tested you and you are positive.” I was glad I was sitting. “It binds to our DNA, altering a change in the shape of the haemoglobin molecule, resulting in significantly less oxygen being carried through the bloodstream, eventually causing brain and organ failure. Anyone who is over the age of fifty dies.”
“Fifty? Great, that leaves me with another eight years,” I muttered.
“But why is it triggered at the age of fifty? Why not upon infection?” I asked.
“It is due to a combination of hormonal changes, in both men and women. It seems the change in life has become a death sentence. We have tried to stave it off but ended up producing undesirable effects such as extreme fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, headaches, excessive bleeding and so forth. We had to cease treatments and haven’t yet come up with another.”
“So, why me?” I asked.
“You, Commander, are different to us. You were treated for Bernat-Cruz Syndrome when you were younger, a DNA disorder of the blood no one in this time has, and we think that treatment will alter the virus yet again. We are fairly sure you will live past the age of fifty.”
“Think? Fairly sure? You’ve got to be kidding! You’ve just condemned me and you only ‘think’ it will work?” I didn’t cherish the thought of dying prematurely. Remembering all those young faces I saw around here, I didn’t like the idea of being the only older person around either.
“Our guys at the lab give this a ninety-five percent chance of success. We wouldn’t have bought you here if we didn’t think it would work, Commander.”
Not liking my options, I replied, “I’m not impressed with your methods, General.” I paused. “How will you use my blood as a weapon? Wouldn’t it be a cure instead?”
“No. Your DNA was altered prior to being contaminated. Once the virus has taken hold, it can’t be eradicated or made benign. And it will also be likely that anyone who comes into contact with the biomatter will contract Bernat-Cruz.”
“What? No! Then I refuse,” I said, shaking my head. “I went through years of pain and disablement before I was treated. I won’t put others through that.”
The General said tersely, “So, you’re willing to allow the Aranthans to wipe us out instead?”
“No, of course not.” I turned away, trying to think of another possibility but none came to mind. I needed more time. Looking outside, I watched as personnel hurriedly boarded armoured vehicles, rushing out of the compound on their way to defend another Aranthan attack nearby. “Can’t we hit them with something which won’t affect us?” I suggested, watching the compound empty.
“With what, Commander?” he said. “We have tried everything from ion bombs, EMT pulses to nerve gas. They always recover quickly with minimal losses. The only things we haven’t tried are nuclear strikes and your version of the virus and we don’t wish to be left with an irradiated planet.”
I didn’t know what to say. This was too much, being plucked out of my time and told the world was about to end and the only way to stop it was to make others suffer like I had.
The General approached. “We need you, Commander. You are all we have left.”
I grunted. “So, how will it be disbursed?”
“We will fire missiles over their cities and compounds. As they reach their targets, the missiles will release the biomatter into the air and it will disburse with the wind. It will only have a half-life of a couple of days, so whatever reaches the Nerali afterwards will be benign. After the Aranthans are destroyed, we will commence a global treatment regime for anyone who has been affected with the syndrome.”
“It sounds risky. They’ll shoot them down,” I said.
“They will get a few, but not all. We intend to send them as a swarm. We only need a few to hit the larger cities, the air currents will do the rest.”
“I still don’t like it,” I replied. “Tell me, how is this compound supposed to kill them?”
“Their DNA is incompatible with ours, so any Nerali carrying the virus can’t pass it on to them. However, yours has a few markers which are similar to theirs due to the treatment you had. This will allow us to extract that part of the virus which will attach to their DNA. As far as we can tell, they don’t undergo hormonal changes as significantly as us, and we have obtained a sample to synthesise it to act as the trigger for the virus. Both products can be carried together, dropped over the Aranthan strongholds and once they are in their system, the virus will begin to act immediately. We estimate that within a couple of months of infection, all Aranthans will be dead.”
“You captured one? A live one?” I asked in amazement.
“Yes. It will be our test subject.”
“We’ve been trying to do that for years. They are too fast and vicious, and seem impervious to any form of stun.”
The corner of the General’s mouth curled upwards. “Technology has advanced over the past quarter century, Commander.”
“I guess so,” I muttered, touching my healed thigh. I considered the proposal with much scepticism, but I couldn’t see any viable alternatives. The Aranthans were here to stay.
I worked with them over the next two weeks. I agreed to provide the sample required and was relieved to hear I was immune. Within the following month, they had their bioweapon ready for deployment. It had been a success on the test subject, with it succumbing to the virus only a couple of days after infection. After asking permission, I was denied taking a sample of the biomatter back to my time, saying it would affect the timeline. After an intense argument about the morals of temporal dynamics, I eventually went for a walk. I couldn’t but feel ambivalent about the whole thing. I know tampering with the timeline can have a chaotic effect, but surely, in this case, it could only have a positive effect. On my way back to my bunk, I walked past the stores of biomatter, and surreptitiously pocketed a vial.
The next morning, I woke to the sound of sirens blaring. I gingerly lowered my feet to the floor, bracing for the pain in my thigh but was surprised it never came. Looking down, the gaping hole which sat just below the level of my shorts had almost completely healed with barely a scar remaining. I stood, feeling strangely weak and tried to open my door but it was locked. I banged on the door and when the guard appeared, I asked, “What’s going on?”
“The Aranthans are attacking! Ships are landing all over the planet.” He said.
“Shit!” If only I had been successful in obtaining the portal key a couple of days ago we could have prevented this. Now it seems it could take years to end this war. “Let me out so I can help!” I said.
“Can’t do that, Sir. Not without the General’s orders,” he replied, blocking the door. “You are to remain here under surveillance.”
“Well then, go get his clearance.” He hesitated. “Now, soldier!” I ordered.
He closed the door and I dressed. Almost ready, I steadied myself against the desk while lacing up my boot and felt something press against my hip. Checking my pocket, I pulled out a tiny glass vial filled with blue liquid. What the hell? After examining it, I stowed it in the top drawer of my desk deciding to deal with it later and banged on the door again.